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Palestinian Reforms Needed for Peace Talks, Bush Says

Mideast: 'No one has confidence' in Arafat Cabinet, president says after meeting with Israeli leader. U.S. now devising plan for conference.


WASHINGTON -- Culminating six weeks of talks with key Middle East leaders, President Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday and now faces the tricky task of sorting through disparate positions to develop a proposal to revive the peace process for the region.

The administration's goal is to outline that plan before convening an international conference, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell still hopes will be held in late July, according to U.S. officials.

But Bush signaled concerns Monday about the conference, largely because of frustration with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. A day after Arafat announced a round of relatively minor reforms to his leadership circle, Bush said the Palestinian leader had not done enough.

"The conditions aren't even there yet," Bush said when asked about his plans for the conference. "That's because no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government. So, first things first."

Arafat must create a governing structure that would offer the Palestinian people hope and give Israel confidence that a reformed government will be one it can trust, Bush told reporters as Sharon sat at his side in the Oval Office.

The reforms should include increased security steps, anti-corruption measures and a greater reliance by Palestinian institutions on the rule of law, enforced by a court system, the president said.

Bush said he remains disappointed that Arafat "has not led in such a way that the Palestinian people have hope and confidence."

Sharon continued to press the administration not to deal with Arafat. "We must have a partner for negotiations. At the present time, we don't see yet a partner with whom we'll be able to move forward," he told reporters.

The administration will now "turn inward" to discuss the diverse ideas, appeals and recommendations it has received from leaders of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. These officials began their pilgrimages to Washington in late April, after Bush's decision to become more involved in the Middle East peace process.

"This is where the really hard part begins," a State Department official said.

Sharon came to Washington--only a month after his last visit and for the sixth time since Bush took office--to urge the administration to reject the Arab argument that the United States should propose a definite timeline for creation of a Palestinian state in no more than three years.

Arab leaders, most recently Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in talks with Bush on Saturday, have said that such a move would generate hope among the Palestinians and diminish the leverage of extremists. But Bush said after meeting with Mubarak that "we're not ready to lay down a specific calendar."

Sharon was pleased with the outcome of his White House visit, said an Israeli official involved in the discussions. "We think we got our ideas across," the official said.

The official added that two of the most contentious issues critical to any final settlement of the Middle East conflict--the borders of a Palestinian state and Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--did not come up in the talks.

Bush, in his public comments, appeared to accept Israel's predawn encirclement of Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, the second incursion in less than a week.

"Israel has a right to defend herself," the president said.

The comments were in stark contrast to Bush's tough words during Israel's five-week incursion into the West Bank this spring, which included a siege of Arafat's compound.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Washington will be "closely monitoring" Israeli military activities. "The United States again reminds Israel about the importance of remembering the repercussions of whatever action Israel takes today impacting the broader goals of achieving peace tomorrow," Fleischer said.

Sharon requested the session with Bush and a meeting with congressional leaders today to follow the weekend talks between Bush and Mubarak, which were held at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

Mubarak had been scheduled to be the final Middle East leader to visit Bush, but Sharon wanted to try to have the last word, U.S. officials said.

Saudi Arabia is now pitching to have its foreign minister make another stop here within the next week to underscore its strong commitment to the peace initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah, which was accepted unanimously by the Arab League in March. It calls for full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for withdrawal by the Jewish state from all Arab lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East War.

Fleischer said Bush wants to do "a little thinking" before he makes a decision on a U.S. peace proposal. The president would then announce the plan in a major speech laying the groundwork for the international conference.

An Israeli official involved in the White House discussions said Sharon did not get a clear impression of what the United States intends to do.

"The process is still fluid," said the official.

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