Sharon: Israel Is Ready to Accept the Middle East Road Map

Says will present plan for cabinet approval; U.S. pledges to address Israel's fears; Powell: no changes planned; Bush says weighing 3-way summit.

Hours after the United States said it would address Jerusalem's "significant concerns" about the internationally-brokered road map to Middle East peace, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Friday that Israel is ready to accept the plan, and that it will be submitted for approval by his cabinet Sunday.

"The prime minister says that the State of Israel is ready to accept the steps which are outlined in the road map and it will be presented to the government for approval," the prime minister's office said in a statement.

"The United States government received a response from the government of Israel, explaining its significant concerns about the road map," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in a statement issued by the White House during a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush to Texas.

"The United States shares the view of the government of Israel that these are real concerns, and will address them fully and seriously in the implementation of the road map," the statement said.

But Powell, speaking at a press conference during the G-8 summit in Paris shortly after the American statement was released, said that Washington was "not planning on making any changes to the road map."

Most of Israel's reservations relate to implementation. Jerusalem wanted to stiffen the security demands the plan makes of the Palestinians, to delay the settlement freeze until the Palestinians start fighting terror, and to ensure that implementation would be monitored just by the U.S. rather than by all the members of the Quartet (the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia).

Sharon's office has previously said that once the U.S. had announced its acceptance of Israel's reservations, it would be possible to muster a cabinet majority for the peace plan.

The Yesha Council of settlements Friday urged the prime minister not to endorse the plan, saying that "acceptance of the map... is likely to be interpreted as a prize for terror."

The publication of the American statement was part of an agreement between Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass and Rice at a White House meeting Wednesday.

The American secretary of state Friday urged the Palestinian leadership to crack down on terror, urging "100 percent intent and 100 percent effort to bring terror and violence under control."

Washington acceded to most of Israel's requests, but rejected two: that the Palestinians immediately waive their demand for a "right of return" to Israel by the refugees, and that the Saudi Arabia initiative, which calls for peace with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, be removed from the list of the plan's sources of authority.

Powell was particularly adamant on inclusion of the latter, as he deems it crucial for the broader Arab world to be involved in the process.

Bush confirms weighing Sharon-Abbas summitAfter several days of speculation that he would be meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian premiers, Bush said Friday that he would consider holding a joint meeting with Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) if it would help advance progress toward peace.

"I'm exploring the opportunities as to whether or not I should meet with Prime Minister Abu Mazen as well as Prime Minister Sharon," Bush said. "If a meeting advances progress toward two states living side by side in peace, I will strongly consider such a meeting."

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that Bush is considering coming to the region in early June, where he would meet with both Sharon and Abu Mazen. Shalom hinted that Bush would come to Israel for these meetings, but other government sources later dismissed this as unlikely and cited Cairo as the more likely venue.

Sources in Washington, however, said that no decision had yet been made on a Bush visit. Another possibility that the White House is considering is a three-way meeting between Bush, Sharon and Abbas in Europe.

U.S. officials also said Thursday that Bush is considering a three-way meeting with Sharon and Abu Mazen in Egypt. Although planning for a summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh is in the works, a senior administration official cautioned that it may not become a reality. It depends on whether the two sides take steps toward peace in the days ahead, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Initially, in response to pressure from Israel and its supporters in America, the administration had been inclined to postpone the issue of the road map's formal approval by Israel and simply to begin implementing it.

Last Saturday night, however, when Sharon and Abu Mazen held their first meeting, this approach was revealed to be problematic: Sharon offered to withdraw the Israel Defense Forces from any part of the West Bank and Gaza in which the Palestinians would agree to assume responsibility for security, but Abu Mazen replied that he was not willing to do anything until Israel formally accepted the road map.

As a result, the U.S. decided to press Israel to approve the road map quickly. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer delivered this message to Sharon on Tuesday, and Bush reiterated it in a telephone conversation with the prime minister on Wednesday. Weisglass then flew to Washington to clinch an agreement on the U.S. statement.

The road map is a phased plan for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that was drafted by the Quartet. In the first stage, it calls for the Palestinian Authority to implement administrative reforms and fight terror, and for Israel to dismantle settlement outposts, freeze construction in all the settlements and withdraw its troops to the pre-intifada lines.

Next, a Palestinian state with temporary borders and limited sovereignty would be established, and Israel would withdraw from additional territory. Finally, Israel and the Palestinian state would negotiate a final-status agreement, which is when issues such as borders, Jerusalem and the refugees would first be discussed.

The plan sets a target date of 2005 for completion of this agreement, but stresses that progress from stage to stage will be determined by performance benchmarks.