Bush May Hold Talks With Sharon, Abbas
WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush is considering a three-way meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt, officials involved in the planning said Thursday.
Bush’s aim in a high-profile meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would be to prod them into implementing the so-called road map for a settlement.
On Wednesday, Sharon for the first time signaled qualified support for the peace plan, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He told the White House through an emissary that he would go along with it as long as the White House took his concerns into account. A White House announcement is expected Friday.
One of Sharon’s main concerns is that the road map, which requires the dismantling of recently established Israeli outposts, might be construed as requiring the dismantling of all Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Sharon told the Israeli people last week that abandoning settlements was not on the horizon.
The Palestinians also have expressed reservations, but accepted the administration’s view their concerns should be addressed in negotiations with Israel.
The road map is an attempt to end 32 months of fighting, freeze construction of Jewish homes on the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state by 2005 on land Israel has held for 36 years.
Although planning for a summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik is in the works, a senior administration official cautioned that it may not become a reality.
It depends on whether the two sides take steps toward peace in the days ahead, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On the Palestinian side, the administration has been seeking an end to attacks on Israel. From Sharon, meanwhile, the administration wants explicit acceptance of the road map.
Bush’s hopes for a peace accord and a major foreign policy success could turn on the outcome of a summit. It also carries risks as well as potential gains for Sharon and Abbas.
Sharon has enjoyed strong support from the president, but if he is judged at fault for a breakdown, that support could dwindle. For his part, Abbas has won praise from the administration as a leader who may be able to deliver both peace for the Palestinians and democratic reform. A summit would test that confidence.
Bush departs next Thursday on a trip to Poland and St. Petersburg, Russia, for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to Evian, France, for a G-8 summit conference.
The meeting with Sharon and Abbas would follow, although the U.S. official said a decision on whether to hold a summit might be made at the last minute.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to say where Bush would go after France. Later, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Fleischer said the president would continue to ``work the process, trying to bring people together.″
The spokesman also disclosed that Bush had held an unannounced meeting on Wednesday at the White House with Salam Fayad, the Palestinian finance minister whose job is to reform Palestinian finances and open them to accounting.
Fleischer said Bush wants Sharon to accept the road map, prepared by the United States with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
``The road map is the way the United States has said it wants to proceed,″ the spokesman said. ``It’s self-evident.″
Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, met Wednesday with Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, and discussed with her Sharon’s reservations about some provisions in the road map.
Most of Sharon’s concerns centered on security, with Weisglass explaining that terror attacks against Israel must be stopped before serious peacemaking could begin, an Israeli diplomat said.
Sharon has not accepted the road map, although he has accepted its concept of establishing a Palestinian state.
He had been due to meet with Bush at the White House on Tuesday, but five bloody suicide bomb attacks in Israel caused the prime minister to postpone the visit.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Bush and Sharon might meet in Europe at the end of next week.
Shalom said there was also a possibility that ``the president will come to this area.″ He did not elaborate.
Former President Clinton held a summit at Sharm el-Sheik in October 2001 and helped steer Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak into a cease-fire agreement.
The Egyptian ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, urged Bush to play a more active role.
``We want more engagement for the United States,″ Fahmy said at the Israel Policy Forum, a private group that seeks to promote U.S. peacemaking in the region. ``Unless it becomes his road map it will not work.″
Also, Fahmy said, the Palestinians must ``convey to Israel that by implementing the road map you are more secure.″
Bush on Tuesday made an appeal to Abbas to clamp down on terror attacks against Israel, while also reassuring him the administration still intends to help create a Palestinian state in 2005.
The telephone call was Bush’s first contact with Abbas, whose appointment followed a presidential boycott of Arafat and gave the Bush administration a way to try to bypass the longtime head of the Palestinian movement.
In an Arab television interview, however, Abbas reaffirmed his support for Arafat as the Palestinians’ legitimate leader and accused Israel of trying to make Arafat a scapegoat.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.