Slow Going for Powell's Road Map ; as Colin Powell Concluded His Mideast Peace Visit Monday, Israel Sealed the Gaza Strip

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Many analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is heading to Washington next week with the Middle East peace road map exactly where he wants it: waylaid at the illegal settler outposts of the West Bank.

The several dozen outposts established by zealous settlers without cabinet approval and with little Israeli public support should be "immediately" emptied, according to the road map drawn up by the US, the European Union, Russian and the United Nations with the stated goal of achieving peace through the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Israel and the Palestinian areas over the weekend, ostensibly to spur momentum for the blueprint, which calls in its first phase for a Palestinian halt to violence and security crackdown and an Israeli freeze on Jewish settlements. But Mr. Powell was forced to admit that he had made little progress on the outposts issue, telling journalists it would be discussed further during this week and during Mr. Sharon's visit to the US.

Powell's visit was widely seen as unsuccessful. Nachum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, wrote that "Powell arrived with the feeling that the American victory in Iraq changed the face of the Middle East. He found, however, how little things have actually changed."

Mr. Barnea wrote that Powell simply could not get past Sharon's concern that Israel could be duped by the Palestinians. "Israel is worried about being dragged into negotiations under fire. Assume the Palestinian government makes a certain effort to fight terrorism and Israel sits down with them. Meanwhile, the terrorism increases again. That would mean Sharon is doing something he has sworn to the public he will never do."

The lack of discussion of outposts is significant because whether the United States admits it or not, Sharon is setting the pace of the diplomatic agenda, analysts say. Washington, they add, has now effectively entered into negotiations with Israel over the text of the road map, without insisting Sharon spell out clearly whether Israel accepts it, as the Palestinians have.

"The strategy of Sharon is to lead the road map to a funeral without mentioning the date of the funeral, to have it die a gradual death," says Wadie Abu Nassar, a Haifa-based political analyst. "He is very happy with the current status quo, he controls everything, the Palestinians are weak, he has no domestic opposition and he still thinks the Palestinians can be weakened by force and that they will have to accept Israeli demands."

And Sharon is confident he can get away with stonewalling, says Mr. Abu Nasser. "Sharon is waiting until October, until election season. Until then we can expect a combination of gestures and provocations from him. He will use the outposts, prisoners, other issues, as gesture. He has read the American map, and he knows that since Sept. 11, the thinking is more right-wing, which means more pro-Israel and more pro-Israeli right-wing."

Amid peace talks, fresh fighting

In the West Bank on Sunday, Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli motorist. …