- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

President Bush plans to hold his first meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday, traveling to Jordan to lend his personal prestige to jump-starting the stalled peace process.

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat was not invited to the summit and has expressed frustration that he is being marginalized by the White House. Mr. Bush recently withheld release of a U.S.-backed “road map” for peace until Mr. Arafat grudgingly installed a new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who will attend the summit.

The meeting is being touted as a “hopeful moment” by White House officials who say they are encouraged that the peace plan has been accepted by both sides. But they caution that the summit, which also will be attended by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is contingent upon both parties doing everything in their power to avert violence.

“It’s full speed ahead unless something takes it off rail,” said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. “The problem in the Middle East is, hopeful moments can get derailed.”

Asked whether a terrorist attack would derail the summit, Mr. Fleischer said, “I don’t even want to speculate or hypothetically go down that road.”

The meeting will be preceded by a separate summit on Tuesday in Egypt, where Mr. Bush will pressure Arab leaders to stop violence in the region. The president will cut short his stay at an economic conference in France to travel to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheik and huddle with Mr. Abbas and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain.

“The president is expecting a solid expression of support not only for the road map, but of the Arab leaders to help the Palestinian Authority as they restore their security capacity, their security organizations,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said.

Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy said that to crack down effectively on terrorism, Palestinian security forces need to accomplish four things.

“They need to be able to show the Palestinian people a political dividend from the Israelis,” he said. “They need to be empowered by an Israeli military withdrawal from the areas where they will patrol.

“They need assets — people and equipment — because the infrastructure has been destroyed. And they need time to develop institutions and legitimacy.”

The president’s decision to insert himself so directly into Middle East peace negotiations is a major departure from his previous posture. Unlike President Clinton, who hosted Mr. Arafat at the White House more than any other foreign leader, Mr. Bush has steadfastly refused to meet with Mr. Arafat. He has spoken by phone with him only once, just weeks after taking office.

But now that the president has begun efforts to sweep Mr. Arafat from the world stage, he is demonstrating a new willingness to engage the Palestinians. This month, Mr. Bush has met with the Palestinian finance minister and spoken by phone with Mr. Abbas.

“The president has always said that when he thought he could give a little impetus to what is going to be a very long and difficult process, that he would do so,” said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. “This is a new opportunity for peace at the end of the war in Iraq and particularly with changes in the Palestinian leadership.”

But Miss Rice was careful to keep expectations for the summit low.

“The president just believes that this is a good time to sit down face to face, eye to eye, with the leaders,” she said. “I want to be very clear: This is going to be a long process, and it is going to have ups and downs — as it has always had.”

The White House made clear that Mr. Bush would avoid the strategy of Mr. Clinton, who spent the closing months of his presidency trying to reach a comprehensive peace settlement instead of an incremental plan. Those peace talks ended in failure, and Palestinians responded with the worst violence against Israel in years.

“In the Middle East, where progress is often difficult, it’s important to make the progress that can be made today and not attempt to make too much of an attempt for progress when that may be beyond reach immediately,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Instead of predicting that the summit will result in quantifiable progress toward peace, the White House appears content to tout the symbolic significance of the president’s willingness to participate in direct talks.

“Such a meeting would certainly demonstrate the U.S. commitment to moving forward with the peace process, and I think it would give both leaders, Prime Minister Sharon and Prime Minister Abbas, an opportunity to express their views directly to the president,” Mr. Powell said.

“And I think it would give some hope and inspiration to the people of the region that we are now moving forward on the road map toward the vision that the president had,” he added.

Mr. Arafat is being excluded not only from the three-way summit in Jordan, but also from the meeting of Arab leaders in Egypt. But Mr. Fahmy said that this should not be interpreted as further sidelining Mr. Arafat.

“President Bush is clearly not in a position to talk to Arafat,” he said. “That does not mean the Arab world is distancing itself from Arafat.

“We are doing this for two reasons — to advance the peace process and to discuss issues with the American president,” he added. “We will continue to deal with Arafat. He is the chosen leader of the Palestinian people.”

After concluding his summit in Egypt, Mr. Bush will travel to Qatar to visit U.S. forces that defeated Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

David Jones contributed to this report.

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