But with the loss of the only key Palestinian figure committed to the plan, the chance for peace may have already 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 - a successor will be hard to find.

His early success in imposing a ceasefire among Palestine’s resistance groups on 29 July was nullified by repeated Israeli raids on Palestinian territories which eventually led to a resumption of attacks on Israeli civilians and a collapse of the truce.

Disdain for Arafat

The Bush 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 pre-empt the territorial outcome of the peace plan.
 
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 the US-appointed Abbas.

Bush orchestrated the appointment of Abbas, a longtime Arafat comrade and fellow founder of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's main 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 Palestinian politics, and appears to have weathered this latest attempt to divide and conquer to remain at the head of the nation.

No peace process

"I don't think there will be a great impact on the peace process because there was no peace process anyway"

Ali al-Jirbawi,
Professor of International Relations

Palestinian commentators said that Abbas departure was a result of the lack of support he received from his supposed allies in Israel and the US.

"I don't think there will be a great impact on the peace process because there was no peace process anyway," said Ali al-Jirbawi, Professor of International Relations at Bir Zeit University.

Al-Jirbawi said that paradoxically it could actually serve to expose the lack of will of those behind the road map.

"Maybe it's better now that things will come out in the open, it will be revealed that there was no implementation of the road map by Israel and there was no action by the United States to make Israel carry out the road map," he told Aljazeera.

"I believe Israel and the United States brought about Abbas's downfall, not Arafat. The absence of a political process weakened him and led to the collapse of his government.

"Even with the resignation, Abbas is in a very difficult position. If the Israelis exploit this situation to apply more pressure on Arafat or tighten his siege or deport him, the Palestinian people will blame Abbas. So he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't."

Israel showed no signs of softening its stance towards Arafat, saying it would not accept day-to-day control of the Palestinian Authority reverting to Arafat "or anyone doing his bidding".

"(Arafat) is part of the problem and not the solution. He is a direct cause that threatens stability in the area," an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement said.

EU alarm

The road map is President George Bush's plan announced 14 months ago and is 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.

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.

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.

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."

Until Saturday, the 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."