Bush Insists Road Map is on Track

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush defended the administration's peace plan for the Middle East as his aides scrambled to revive Israeli-Palestinian discussions in the face of five bomb attacks on Israelis in three days.

"I've got confidence we can move the peace process forward," Bush said at a meeting with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, adding that the administration's plan, known as the road map, "still stands."

"We're still on the road to peace," he said. "It's just going to be a bumpy road."

Despite the president's hopeful words, some administration officials conceded that little could be done to sustain the delicate momentum of the peace effort if the suicide bombings of the last few days continue.

Administration officials said that as a first priority, they would keep pressing Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to take action against Hamas, the Aksa Martyrs Brigade and other groups that have taken responsibility for the bombings against Israel.

But the officials also said there was room for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, whose visit to Washington this week was deferred because of the latest violence, to improve conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps by easing closures and checkpoints, without jeopardizing security.

In Israel, Sharon is coming under pressure from conservatives in his Cabinet to act against Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

But administration officials said it was still U.S. policy to discourage Israel from expelling Arafat from the West Bank.

State Department officials conceded that a carefully orchestrated timetable for Israeli and Palestinian concessions, proceeding according to a schedule U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell negotiated when he visited Israel a week ago, was thrown into chaos by the attacks.

Some in the administration say that the attacks were indeed intended to accomplish that objective, perhaps by Arafat, who has been sidelined as the United States maneuvers to replace him with Abbas.

Sharon was to have traveled to Washington by now for a meeting with Bush at the White House. Administration officials have hinted that Israel had been prepared to ease up on closures, checkpoints, work permits and other onerous restrictions that have badly damaged the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza.

In addition, Israel had talked of releasing large numbers of Palestinian prisoners and detainees, held since the beginning of the recent wave of suicide bomb attacks.

The administration had hoped that these steps would make it easier for Abbas, in turn, to start arresting members of militant groups -- a step that he and others have said they could not carry out without an improvement in living conditions for ordinary Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the administration's strategy of following the step-by-step road map -- a seven-page document that lays out a timetable for creation of a Palestinian state in three years -- has begun to draw increasing fire in the United States and Israel.

Some Israelis are openly disdainful of the timetable, arguing that it requires too many unilateral concessions by Israel in return for amorphous Palestinian promises to end the violence.