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Palestinians question US commitment to Middle East peace

Palestinians are worried that US President George W Bush's failure to mention their conflict with Israel in his State of the Union address means he intends to scale down US involvement in the matter.

Israel, apparently unconcerned, just shrugged it off.

"The fact that President Bush did not mention the peace process at all means that 2004 will be a year of American disengagement from the peace process and the absence of the roadmap," said Palestinian negotiations minister Saeb Erakat.

In his annual address to Congress, Bush made absolutely no mention of the road map for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, nor did he use the words "Israel," "Palestinian" or "Palestine" in the nearly hour-long speech.

Mr Erakat said he feared Israel would take advantage of this "to intensify settlement activity and accelerate construction of the wall, which will lead to a deterioration of the situation, causing more insecurity and stability in the region."

He was referring to the controversial barrier Israel is building to separate itself from the West Bank despite widespread condemnation from the international community, including from its top ally, the United States.

Palestinian political analyst Ali Jarbawi echoed Mr Erakat's concerns.

"This year, Sharon will force his political agenda on the ground and impose the settlement of the conflict he wants with the blessing of the US administration," he said, referring to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"The road map is a US invention, and not mentioning it at all is a sign of failure, the failure of the United States in pushing for peace efforts here," Mr Jarbawi said.

The road map, a plan drawn up by the so-called diplomatic quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia to try to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace, has been deadlocked for months.

Yet Israel seemed unfazed by Mr Bush's speech, with government spokesman Avi Pazner stressing that the US president had other fish to fry.

"It shows that President Bush has more important issues to mention. As far as the Middle East is concerned, he insisted once more on the necessity that countries in the region become democratic, which Israel can only approve of," he said.

Reacting to Mr Bush's remarks on democracy, Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei questioned the US leader's order of priorities.

"We're hoping that before dealing with democratic processes in the Middle East, President Bush will pronounce on (Israel's) occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza," he told reporters.

-- AFP


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