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U.S. Seeks to Preserve Peace Plan

Bush may hold a meeting with Sharon and Abbas in an effort to jump-start process.

May 22, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In an effort to keep its Middle East peace plan alive, the White House is trying to set up a meeting in early June hosted by President Bush with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

"We're still feeling out the various parties and players to see if we can make it happen," a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

The meeting could be held in Qatar, one of the few Arab countries that has ties to both Israel and the Palestinians.

Bush could add a stop in Qatar and possibly another Persian Gulf nation to meet U.S. troops as part of his already scheduled visits to Russia for talks with President Vladimir V. Putin, to France for the G-8 summit of industrialized nations, and to Poland.

But obstacles ranging from concern about the president's security following an upsurge in terror attacks to reluctance by Israelis or Palestinians could yet torpedo the summit, the sources said.

Administration officials say Washington needs to generate momentum soon if it hopes to overcome the increasingly combustible situation on the ground and make progress before the U.S. presidential campaign heats up.

Dov Weisglass, Sharon's chief of staff, arrived for an unannounced visit Wednesday and held talks with U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and other officials at the White House on what's next on the "road map," the international blueprint to create a provisional Palestinian state this year and end the conflict by the end of 2005.

Sharon was scheduled to visit Tuesday. But he postponed his trip indefinitely after a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus over the weekend, one of five Palestinian attacks within 48 hours. Weisglass came to test the United States' mood and commitment to the plan, which Israel has yet to endorse, American officials said.

The Bush administration has been disappointed that Israel has neither formally accepted the road map nor followed through on specific steps it pledged to take both during Weisglass' visit last month and during Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's visit to Israel last week.

"Weisglass is here to put his tippy toe in the water and see how hot it is," a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

"Israel has not done any of the things it promised -- perhaps for some good reasons, but at some point they have to do them," he added.

Washington has been working with Israel on language that would lead to some kind of formal or implicit endorsement of the road map, possibly as a framework or in terms of principles rather than specifics -- and probably still with reservations, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

The road map is the most ambitious, specific and widely backed peace plan to date. It was crafted and endorsed last year by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, and released last month. The new Palestinian leadership has accepted it, but Sharon has so far refused to even use the words "road map," even in his discussions with Powell.

Without Sharon's endorsement in some form, the plan could in effect collapse, U.S. sources acknowledge.

The United States is also urging the parties to take practical confidence-building steps first -- and then focus on the plan once the two parties are dealing with each other again, U.S. sources said.

"We want to do real things that affect real people. We want the Israelis to demonstrate more seriousness about practical steps and the Palestinians to get started on improving security, even without the Israeli practical steps," a senior State Department official said.

One of the issues Weisglass is discussing is a formula that might allow the Palestinians to name an area for Israel to pull out of where it is providing security, leading to lifted curfews and the chance for Palestinians to return to work in Israel, according to an Israeli envoy familiar with discussions.

"We let the Palestinians decide the place and set the timetable, then we move. That creates a positive dynamic," he said.

Israel is pressing the United States to get the Arab world to do more to support Abbas, which would strengthen his position within the Palestinian Authority. A recent poll found Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has 21% of popular support, while Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has less than 2%.

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