JERUSALEM – International mediators presented Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday with a new Middle East "road map," an ambitious blueprint for ending 31 months of violence and establishing a Palestinian state.
The U.S.-backed plan is supported by a unique consensus of world leaders and comes at a time when U.S. clout is at a high point in the wake of Saddam Hussein's ouster in Iraq.
It also coincides with the advent of a new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas (search), who was inaugurated as prime minister on Wednesday. He has denounced terrorism and vowed to end attacks on Israelis, but the dimensions of the problem were illustrated by the fact that a suicide attacker who killed three bystanders early Wednesday was linked to a group within Abbas' own Fatah party.
President Bush called Abbas "a man I can work with" and said there was a good opportunity to advance the peace process, but all parties "must assume their responsibilities" to achieve peace.
The Arab nations which surround Israel and the potential Palestinian state "must cut off funding for terrorists," he told reporters. "Israel is going to have to make some sacrifices to move the peace process forward."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Abbas will be invited to the White House to meet with Bush. No date was given. Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to the region in May and will meet Sharon and Abbas.
The plan, whose details have been known for months, was presented to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, Abbas received it in the West Bank town of Ramallah from representatives of the four parties that drew up the plan: the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
"For the first time in a very long time, Israel and the international community have a partner to go back to the table with," U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told The Associated Press. "We have, hopefully, a peace process going."
The three-year outline calls, in the first crucial phase, for a Palestinian crackdown on terror groups and an Israeli freeze on Jewish settlements, combined with a "progressive" Israeli pullout from the autonomous Palestinian zones its troops reoccupied during the current round of fighting.
A second phase, which could begin as early as the end of the year, would see the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. Tough issues are left for the last phase, such as final borders, the conflicting claims to Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants who claim the right to return to what is now Israel.
"The road map represents a starting point toward achieving the vision of two states -- a secure state of Israel and a viable, peaceful, democratic Palestine," Bush said in a statement earlier.
Both sides say they want to end violence that since September 2000 has killed 2,287 people on the Palestinian side and 763 people on the Israeli side. But past plans -- whether grand end-of-conflict designs or nuts-and-bolts cease-fire efforts -- have failed, and wrangling over this one has already begun.
Sharon issued a terse statement saying he had received the document "for the purpose of formulating comments on the wording." Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, in contrast, called for "implementing the road map immediately."
Acting U.S. Consul-General Jeff Feldman said: "The road map is a guideline; it's not a sacred text or treaty." Larsen also said implementation would be negotiated, and a diplomatic source said the United States might dispatch an envoy for the task.
Israel's most important objection is to the implication that it must carry out its part -- including a politically difficult freeze on Jewish settlements -- at the same time as the expected Palestinian crackdown on militants.
"First and foremost, the terrorism and the incitement to terrorism has to cease," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Sofer said. "It is crucial that we do not ... talk peace by day and have Israelis blown up by night."
Abbas suggested in a speech to lawmakers on Tuesday he would move against extremists, saying there could only be "one authority" in the Palestinian areas, pledging to collect illegal weapons and condemning terrorism "in all its forms."
But it's a monumental task for his battered Palestinian Authority, which has lost police stations and equipment to Israeli raids. The militants' determination to fight was underscored by a suicide bombing that killed three bystanders in Tel Aviv hours before Abbas was sworn in.
Israel and the United States have welcomed Abbas -- the most senior Palestinian figure to have criticized the armed uprising against Israel -- and they plainly view him as a means to sideline longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom they accuse of encouraging and aiding terrorism.
But Abbas' political support is brittle, and Arafat retains considerable influence as well as direct control of some security organizations -- a violation of the road map's calls for bringing all security bodies under the control of Abbas' interior ministry.
In Gaza, militants made clear that they would resist any effort to disarm them and would not end attacks.
"We will strike the Zionist enemy in each and every corner of Palestine until the end of the occupation," said Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi. He said Abbas' call for an end to violence was "strange and unrealistic."
Reflecting Abbas' troubles, the Tel Aviv attack was claimed jointly by Hamas and the Al Aqsa Brigades, which are linked to his own Fatah movement. A group spokesman said the bombing was a message that "nobody can disarm the resistance movements without a political solution."
The bomber, Asif Mohammed Hanif, slipped in from Gaza and was holding a British passport, police said. It was the first time since the latest Palestinian wave of violence started 2 years ago that a suicide attack had been launched from the area. Unlike the West Bank, Gaza is fenced in. Investigators said an accomplice, Omar Khan Sharif, also had a British passport. His bomb didn't explode and he escaped, police said. The British foreign office declined to comment about the passports.
Abbas condemned the bombing, which wrecked Mike's Place, a popular nightspot on Tel Aviv's teeming seaside promenade. He also said he accepted the road map.
"The road map is an agreement that has been agreed by key members of the international community," said British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. "That in itself is quite remarkable, that there is unanimity."
But Palestinian historian Albert Aghazarian was skeptical. "I don't see a road," he said. "I don't see a vehicle. This is all nonsense. I hope I'm wrong."