But with the loss of the only key Palestinian figure committed to the plan, the chance for peace may already have passed.

The White House said on Saturday that the Palestinians must find a new leader who stands apart from "a corrupt few tainted by terror" and will continue to seek peace based on a US-backed blueprint.

Given the fate of Abbas - hobbled by his US and Israeli backers, distrusted by his people and defeated in a power struggle with Yasir Arafat for control of Palestinian security forces - successors may be hard to conjure up.

His early success in negotiating a unilateral ceasefire by Palestine’s resistance groups on 29 June was nullified by repeated Israeli raids into Palestinian territories which eventually led to a resumption of attacks on Israeli targets and a collapse of the truce.

Disdain for Arafat

President George Bush's administration maintained its partisan support of Israel, despite the Jewish state’s building of an apartheid wall through Palestinian territory in a brazen attempt to preempt the territorial outcome of the peace plan.
 

Arafat is the great survivor of Middle East politics, and has weathered this latest attempt to divide and conquer the Palestinians to remain at the head of the nation.

Neither is the US weakening in its disdain for Yasir Arafat, the democratically elected Palestinian Authority president who created the prime minister's office this year to mollify the Americans and US-appointed Abbas.

Bush orchestrated the appointment of Abbas, a longtime Arafat comrade and fellow founder of the main Palestine Liberation Organisation faction Fatah, as a way of shunting aside Arafat, who he said was tainted by corruption and a history of “terrorism”.

But Arafat is the great survivor of Middle East politics, and has weathered this latest attempt to divide and conquer the Palestinians to remain at the head of the nation.

EU alarm

The road map is Bush's plan announced 14 months ago and nominally designed to create two states, Israel and independent Palestine, co-existing as neighbours in peace.

But now the US administration and its road map partners - the EU, Russia and the UN - are at a loss on how to resuscitate the plan for establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, whose government holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said the bloc was "deeply worried by the serious risk of dangerous instability at the head of the Palestinian executive".

Some EU countries at a meeting of the 15-nation bloc's foreign ministers in Riva del Garda, Italy, blamed the United States and Israel for his exit.

"Abbas is someone who symbolises the hopes for the peace process that everyone has. If efforts to keep him in office do not succeed, it would be a negative factor for the ... peace process"

Gerhard Schroeder,
German Chancellor

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said Abbas had been given "the kiss of death" when the United States and Israel decided to deal only with him and not with Arafat.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told ZDF television: "Abbas is someone who symbolises the hopes for the peace process that everyone has. If efforts to keep him in office do not succeed, it would be a negative factor for the ... peace process."

It takes two

Until Saturday, the US administration considered Abbas the only credible Palestinian peacemaker. Despite intense pressure from Israel and demands by the United States, however, Abbas had refused to try to dismantle Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups. Going beyond persuasion, he insisted, would lead to civil war.

Nonetheless, the administration has maintained a drumbeat of demands that the “terror structure” be dismantled. The road map also requires peacemaking steps by Israel, and Secretary of State Colin Powell appealed in a speech Friday for movement by both sides.

"It takes two to make peace; it takes only one to prevent peace," the secretary said. "If either of the parties turns away from its obligations under the road map, both will slide into a ditch or tumble over a cliff."