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Key Israeli leader embraces 'road map'

Calls for reconvening '03 peace plan summit

JERUSALEM -- Israel's foreign minister embraced yesterday the US-backed ''road map" leading to a Palestinian state and conditionally warmed up to Syrian peace overtures, more signs of movement toward Mideast peace in the post-Yasser Arafat era.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called for reconvening the 2003 summit that launched the plan, pledging negotiations with the new Palestinian leadership and with Syria if they fight militant violence against Israel.

Shalom's speech at an annual security conference in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, marked the first time an Israeli official endorsed the plan in the year since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed pulling Israeli settlements out of the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank.

Sharon called his proposal ''unilateral disengagement," refusing to coordinate it with the Palestinian administration led by Arafat, which was shunned by Israel because of Israel's assertions that Arafat was involved in terrorism. After Arafat's death Nov. 11, Israel softened its attitude, hinting at coordination and cooperation after a Jan. 9 election to replace Arafat.

Shalom took that a step further yesterday. He called for reconvening the summit held in June 2003 at the Jordanian resort of Aqaba, where President Bush launched the ''road map," which leads in stages to a Palestinian state.

Officials in Sharon's office said the premier disagrees with his foreign minister, and rejects the idea of reconvening the Aqaba summit. Sharon is to address the Herzliya conference today.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian gunman opened fire on an Israeli vehicle at a Gaza crossing after nightfall yesterday, wounding four people, one critically, a settler spokesman said and an Israeli television station said.

The settler spokesman, Eran Sternberg, said Israeli soldiers shot and killed the attacker. The military had no comment. Earlier in the day, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two armed Palestinians crawling near a Jewish settlement in Gaza, settlers and Israel television reported.

While insisting the Palestinians must first stop violence, Shalom also said that the initial requirements of the ''road map" must be instituted in tandem with Israeli concessions.

''They must do their part -- stopping terrorism, violence, and incitement -- and in parallel we must do our part," he said. ''Israel must do its part by removing unauthorized [settlement] outposts and withdraw to the lines before Sept. 29, 2000," referring to the beginning of the current round of violence, when Israel moved troops back into the West Bank, set up dozens of roadblocks, and took control of Palestinian cities and towns.

The ''road map" stalled over failure by either side to carry out the first stage. Israel dismantled some outposts in the West Bank but left dozens of others, while the Palestinians tried unsuccessfully to stop violence through dialogue with the militants instead of moving to ''dismantle" their cells according to the plan's formula.

Palestinians demand a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, along with the right of refugees from the war that followed Israel's 1948 creation to return to their homes with their descendants, about 4 million people.

Shalom insisted that the Palestinians must renounce the refugee demand. There must be a clear commitment by the Palestinians ''that they are prepared to rehabilitate the refugee camps where they are today" and remain living at those locations, he said, a position the Palestinians have rejected for decades.

Turning to Syria, Shalom said recent peace overtures from President Bashar Assad ''cannot be ignored."

But, he added, ''as soon as Syria stops its support of terrorism, we must immediately go to the negotiating table," repeating the Israeli condition that Syria must close the Damascus command posts of such radical Palestinian groups as Hamas.

Shalom also suggested a step-by-step process of confidence-building measures, followed by talks on security and then ''tough issues," such as borders.

Hamas, meanwhile, canceled its annual anniversary rally, set for a Gaza City soccer stadium tomorrow, fearing Israeli retaliation after Hamas militants tunneled under a border checkpoint Sunday and blew up an Israeli fortress, killing five soldiers. The group had put up a stage, bought chairs, and decorated the streets with posters of former leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both assassinated by Israel in airstrikes this year.

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