U.N. Envoy: 'Road Map' Only Viable Option
By NICK WADHAMS, Associated Press Writer
UNITED NATIONS - Israel's recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was encouraging, but mutual steps laid out in the U.N.-backed "road map" remain the only realistic way to achieve peace with the Palestinians, the top U.N. Mideast envoy said Friday.
Alvaro de Soto told the U.N. Security Council that the Road Map's call for progress on "parallel tracks" is the best way to break the suspicion and recrimination on both sides that has stalled peace.
Nonetheless, he said, last month's Israeli withdrawal from Gaza helped lay the foundation of a "true partnership" between the two sides.
"Israel has demonstrated that it can make the sacrifices that are required to make peace; the Palestinians have shown self-restraint in the face of unilateral decisions and tight time frames," de Soto said. "Forces of moderation have prevailed over those of extremism."
After de Soto spoke, the council approved a presidential statement that called for both sides to adhere to the Road Map, as it has done many times before. It backed conclusions reached Tuesday by the so-called Quartet that drafted the Road Map ? United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia.
The Quartet praised the Gaza pullout but insisted it must be only one step toward further withdrawal and efforts to achieve a viable Palestinian state. It called for new action toward achieving the Road Map peace plan, launched in 2003, and insisted that further construction of Israeli settlements must stop, as the Road Map demands.
While de Soto echoed many of the Quartet's recommendations, he also highlighted many of the benefits from the Gaza withdrawal.
"The Palestinians have experienced the joy of the departure of the occupier," he said. "The Israelis are no longer saddled with the unrewarding, Sysiphus-like grind of securing" the Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reaped diplomatic rewards for ending the country's 38-year Gaza occupation. In the past two weeks, Qatar, Pakistan and Indonesia have held high-level public meetings with Israel ? a rare event for Muslim countries ? and Sharon met Friday with Jordan's King Abdullah II for their first talks in months.
Yet the last few days have also seen new reminders of just how much more must be achieved. Israel's archenemy, Syria, called the move a first step but not much more.
The Syrian U.N. ambassador, Fayssal Mekdad, went before the U.N. General Assembly on Friday and said the withdrawal must not be allowed to mask the fact that Israel continues to maintain settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
He said that calls into doubt Israel's claim that the Gaza withdrawal was much of a sacrifice.
"If Israel claims that withdrawing its settlers is painful and if Israel is genuine in its desire for peace in the region, then why does its government continue to build settlements and bring in settlers to the occupied Syrian and Palestinian Arab territories?" he said.
Since the launch of the road map, Israel has started building at least 3,500 homes in the five fastest-growing settlements, according to the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now.
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