SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — President Bush, making his first hands-on attempt to broker peace in the Middle East, today will press Arab leaders to accept Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as the rightful Palestinian leader and urge them to do more to stem terrorism.
The move is a high-stakes gambit to replace Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian peace negotiator. Mr. Bush says that Mr. Arafat has miserably failed in that role.
“We will encourage them to support Prime Minister Abbas in his efforts to fight terror and to build those Palestinian institutions that can serve as a foundation for a Palestinian state and that serve the needs of the Palestinian people,” a senior administration official said yesterday on the condition of anonymity.
But Arab leaders expressed concern that the Bush administration is seeking to oust the elected Palestinian leader in favor of the Arafat-appointed Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said Arab countries will stand by Mr. Arafat as the legitimate Palestinian leader despite Washington’s decision to leave him out of peace talks today and tomorrow in Jordan.
Mr. Maher dismissed “all this nonsense of grooming Abu Mazen as a rival to Mr. Arafat” and pointed out that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has regular contacts with Mr. Arafat.
“Arafat is the elected legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, and Abu Mazen is the prime minister,” he said, noting that he was also speaking in the name of his Arab counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath held the same view on Mr. Arafat, who has been virtually locked down in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah since December 2001 because of Israel’s military reaction to Palestinian terrorism.
“We have a prime minister and a president, and they work together very closely. There is no meeting that takes place without our side explaining clearly that our president, Arafat, must be free, must be released and protected from all harm,” he said.
But Mr. Bush holds Mr. Arafat responsible for the breakdown of the most recent peace process — which nearly reached settlement — and the violence since the September 2000 outbreak of the latest Palestinian intifada.
The president, who laid out a “road map” to Middle East peace in April, yesterday previewed his mission with Arab leaders, with whom he meets today.
“My expectations in the Middle East are to call all the respective parties to their responsibility to achieve peace and to make it very clear that my country, and I, will put in as much time as necessary to achieve the vision of two states living side by side in peace,” Mr. Bush said before leaving an economic summit in France.
“I fully understand this is going to be a difficult process. … I know we won’t make progress unless people assume their responsibilities. The first message is, I will dedicate the time and energy to move the process forward,” he said.
Mr. Bush arrived last night in Egypt and was greeted at the airport by Mr. Mubarak. Mr. Bush wrapped his arm around him in a hug. Mr. Mubarak signaled his acceptance of the U.S. peace plan by inviting Mr. Abbas instead of Mr. Arafat to the summit.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said both meetings were important to demonstrate Arab support for the road map and show that Arab leaders will be “speaking out as strongly as I expect the Palestinians to do in denouncing terror and violence and any support that is given to those that practice terror and violence.”
A senior Israeli official said the sides had failed to reach an understanding on a planned joint statement to be published at the end of tomorrow’s summit in Jordan, which will be attended by Mr. Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.
But the senior Bush administration official said the trilateral meeting still may produce a landmark statement.
“We just have to wait and see,” the official said.