- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

President Bush said yesterday that he is considering a joint meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas now that both leaders have accepted his peace plan.

The announcement came after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly acknowledged that Israel has “significant concerns” with the peace plan and promised to address them.

After their carefully worded statement was issued, Mr. Sharon agreed to accept the plan, known as the “road map,” albeit with reservations. The Israeli Cabinet is expected to approve the plan as early as tomorrow.

“Prime Minister Sharon accepted the road map, and that’s progress,” Mr. Bush said at a Texas news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“He accepted it because I assured him that the United States is committed to Israel’s security,” the president added. “We will address any concerns that might arise regarding Israel’s security.”

Mr. Bush said he is “exploring the opportunities as to whether or not I should meet” with Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas. He stopped short of scheduling a meeting at the end of his visit to Europe next month.

“If a meeting advances progress toward two states living side-by-side in peace, I will strongly consider such a meeting,” Mr. Bush said at his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. A senior administration official in Washington cautioned that the road to peace in the Middle East remains fraught with difficulties.

“Are there a lot of ways this could go off the rails? Of course,” said thee official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The good news here is that the parties really have accepted the basic principles, the basic framework and the steps, and are prepared to get on moving to implement the steps,” the official added.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was also cautiously optimistic about the willingness of all parties to accept the peace plan.

“This may represent a bright moment in the Middle East,” he told reporters in Crawford. “Now, bright moments in the Middle East often become cloudy. But for the time being, this is a very positive development.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Abbas dropped his reservations on the plan, citing the need for peace.

“We are ready to start the implementation process immediately. We have got American confirmation that there will not be any changes in the road map,” Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr told The Associated Press yesterday.

Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Sharon’s acceptance of the plan is all the more significant because it comes in the wake of a string of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israelis.

“This comes on the heels of a bad week of violence in the Middle East, yet the parties are not deterred,” he said. “That is hopeful, and that’s why the president has worked it so hard this week.”

Specifically, the president called both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas this week and held a secret meeting in the Oval Office with the Palestinian finance minister on Wednesday. It was Mr. Bush’s first meeting with a Palestinian official since taking office and reflected his success at marginalizing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Now that Mr. Abbas has supplanted Mr. Arafat in the eyes of the White House, the administration has pledged to also address any Palestinian reservations about the peace plan. Those concerns extend to phase two of the plan, which calls for a Palestinian state with provisional borders.

“The Palestinians are going to have concerns about that state,” said the senior administration official. “Is it going to be an economically and politically viable state?

“And the Israelis are going to have concerns about that state — whether it really will be democratic and be an ally in the war against terror, or a source of terror,” the official added.

The peace plan, which is aimed at establishing a permanent Palestinian state, calls on Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. It also calls on Palestinian officials to rein in terror against Israelis.

Despite Israeli and Palestinian reservations about the peace plan, White House officials said it was imperative for both parties to accept the broad parameters of the document before hunkering down to work out the details. Otherwise, the peace process might have become mired in a stalemate.

“It got to the point where the issue of the acceptance of the road map, and this question about whether the road map was going to be changed or not, was getting in the way of moving forward,” the senior administration official said.

“It isn’t open for change — that’s the whole point,” the official added. “The road map now has been accepted as a basis for action to go forward.”

Mr. Bush appeared willing to stake a fair amount of political capital in the effort to enact the plan.

“I’m committed to working toward peace in the Middle East,” he said. “I understand it’s going to be difficult to achieve peace, but I believe it can happen.”

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