Within hours of the US-initiated plan being presented to the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon on 30 April, the two sides were locked in conflict over differing interpretations of how the programme for Palestinian statehood by 2005 should be implemented.

The initial stage of the roadmap, which was drawn up at the end of last year by the Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia, calls on the Palestinians to declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism by the end of May. At the same time Israel must commit to withdrawing troops from the areas it has occupied since September 2000 and cease all settlement building activities.

Palestinian officials, who consider the plan to be a final and binding document, argue that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority must meet their commitments for the first phase of the plan in parallel, a stance that is supported by most of the Quartet members. Israel, however, insists that the roadmap is open to continued negotiation and has said that it will not fulfil its side of the agreement until Abbas proves himself capable of cracking down on militant Palestinian groups.

The new premier will have his work cut out walking the tightrope between fulfiling Israeli and US expectations and maintaining cohesion among a fractious population. The radical Palestinian group Hamas has rejected the roadmap and Abbas, a strong critic of attacks against Israel, is saddled by limited popular support and the ever-present figure of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who remains determined not to be sidelined despite attempts to do so by the US and Israel.

Having dragged its feet for months over the publication of the roadmap, the US, in the wake of its military victory in Iraq, is now keen to press ahead with resolving the Middle East crisis. ‘There is a lot to do, but we have an obligation to support the process,’ a US State Department official told MEED on 30 April. ‘We have made key progress towards establishing a new Palestinian leadership. which we must support both diplomatically and financially.’

In an effort to underscore Washington’s commitment to the peace process, US Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to tour the region in mid-May, visiting Jerusalem and Ramallah as well as Amman, Cairo and Riyadh. However, many fear that US President Bush’s interest in the roadmap may fall by the wayside if discussions over the intractable issues of Jerusalem and refugees, scheduled for 2004-5, coincide with his campaign for a second term in office in the 2004 Presidential elections.