- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The White House is making plans for President Bush to meet with the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers next week to discuss the U.S.-drafted “road map” to Middle East peace, administration officials said yesterday.

The White House has dispatched advance teams to Jordan and Egypt to survey potential sites for several meetings. Under one scenario, the president would meet with Arab leaders in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, then meet separately in Aqaba, Jordan, with Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The meetings will come at the end of Mr. Bush’s European trip, which likely will include a stop in Kuwait City or Doha, Qatar, to visit with U.S. troops, officials said.

“It’s under active consideration, the possibility of meetings,” said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, who refused to confirm the scenario, now being widely reported in the region. “At this point, there are just some formalities as the president continues to review the exact manner in which he … [can] help bring the parties together in bringing peace to the Middle East.”

Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Adwan yesterday told the Petra news agency that Mr. Bush would attend two summits after traveling to Poland, Russia and the G-8 gathering in France.

“The first [will be] in Sharm el-Sheikh between President Bush and several Arab leaders, including His Majesty King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak,” Mr. Adwan said.

“Jordan will host in Aqaba, in the presence of King Abdullah, the second summit, which will bring together President Bush, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” he said, adding that talks are under way to “set the date for both summits.”

In Jerusalem, Israeli public radio on Sunday reported that the summit would take place at Jordan’s Red Sea resort of Aqaba.

Throughout his 2 years in office, Mr. Bush has refused to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom the president views as an instigator of terrorism. But Mr. Bush, who last month laid out a timetable for Middle East peace drawn up by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, sees Mr. Abbas as a possible partner for peace.

Mr. Fleischer said that, despite recent bomb attacks in Israel, the process has reached “what can possibly be a very hopeful moment, and the president wants to do everything in his power to make it the most hopeful moment possible.”

Asked how the process differs from that of former President Bill Clinton, who engaged Mr. Arafat as a means to peace, Mr. Fleischer said: “The biggest difference is Yasser Arafat is not party to the current discussions. And it was Yasser Arafat who did the most to destroy the prospects of an agreement being reached when it was very close to being reached. That’s the principal difference.”

The president’s meeting with Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas will be the deepest involvement to date by the Bush administration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which initially took a hands-off approach pending real peace efforts by both sides. Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas are scheduled to meet today.

The road map calls for a series of concrete steps leading to an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders as early as the end of this year, with a fully operational Palestine by 2005. Among them was the designation of a new “interim prime minister,” which the Palestinians have fulfilled. But Phase One of the timetable also calls for the Palestinians to “immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence,” which has not occurred.

Israel has begun to comply with its requirements under the timetable, although it has not withdrawn troops from Palestinian towns. Still, Mr. Sharon, under U.S. pressure, last week embraced the plan after the White House assured him publicly it would address Israel’s objections to some parts. The Israeli Cabinet approved it Sunday.

On Monday, Mr. Sharon surprised Israelis when he vowed to reach a peace deal and to end 36 years of “occupation” — a word he used publicly for the first time — of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Bush leaves Friday for a stop in Krakow, Poland, in gratitude for its support during the U.S.-led war on Iraq, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on the city’s 300th anniversary and then a summit of the major industrialized nations in Evian, France.

The president is expected to visit troops in either Doha, site of the U.S. Central Command, or Kuwait City.

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