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U.S.: Bush Appears Set For His First Israeli-Palestinian Summit

Although the White House has yet to confirm it, U.S. President George W. Bush appears set to take part in a summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders -- the first of his presidency. The talks would reportedly take place in Jordan next week after Bush visits Europe and Russia.

Washington, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After steering clear of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis for much of his 2 1/2 years in office, U.S. President George W. Bush looks set to make a major push for Middle East peace.

Israeli and Palestinian officials say the White House is finalizing the details of a summit late next week that would bring Bush face-to-face for the first time with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmud Abbas, the new Palestinian premier.

News of the summit came after Israel's conditional acceptance on 25 May of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. The summit, a sharp departure from 32 months of violence between the two sides, would be the first meeting between Palestinian and Israeli leaders since the failed Camp David talks in the summer of 2000.

Speaking yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said, "I think the time has come that both parties will come back to the table and resume the negotiations, and I hope that this summit that will take place next week in the region will bring a glimmer of hope while both parties will decide to resume the negotiations."

Although White House spokesman Ari Fleischer yesterday declined to confirm the news, Jordan's official Petra news agency quoted Information Minister Muhammad Adwan as saying the summit will take place in Jordan. The meeting would come amid a separate U.S.-Arab summit with Bush and leaders of key Arab nations.

The road map was drawn up by the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. It outlines reciprocal steps leading to an end of violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. The Palestinians accepted the plan without reservations.

Israel approved it with conditions, including the refusal to allow thousands of Palestinian refugees to return to areas that are now in Israel.

Still, analysts expressed surprise at Sharon's persistence in pushing the peace plan through a cabinet that includes forces further to the right than his own Likud Party. Sharon even used the word "occupation" for the first time on 25 May when speaking at a Likud meeting.

"I think that it is important to Israel to get to a political settlement," Ssharon said. "I also think that the thoughts and the ideas that it is possible to continue and to hold under occupation -- you may not like the word, but what is happening is an occupation -- to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation, I believe that is a terrible thing, for Israel and for the Palestinians, and also for the Israeli economy."

Some analysts say Sharon's acceptance of the road map may be a tactical move to please Bush. Although a strong supporter of Israel, Bush also appears intent on using America's military triumph in Iraq to promote broader political and social progress throughout the region. And that includes, first and foremost, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At a European and Mediterranean foreign ministers' meeting in Crete yesterday, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Washington would be the key player in the road map's success.

"We see these meetings as a sign of greater American involvement. We see them as a personal engagement by President Bush. I think this personal engagement is important, something that he did not do before because he was so busy doing other things," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shalom said that "concrete results" should be expected from the summit, adding that Bush would not make such a big investment without a guaranteed return.

But what might Israel and the Palestinians offer to please Bush and get the "road map" started?

University of Michigan professor Raymond Tanter is a Middle East expert and former White House official. In an interview with RFE/RL, Tanter put it this way: "The presidential summit might yield the following: On one hand, the government of Israel might withdraw from, or at least slow down, the construction of illegal outposts -- settlements that are called outposts -- in return for which the Palestinians would agree to end incitement in official statements [and media]."

Among other possible developments from the summit, analysts say, is a U.S. decision to appoint a special envoy to the peace process, a clear signal of deeper U.S. commitment.

Tanter, meanwhile, believes that while Sharon may be unwilling to budge on settlements, which have the sanction of the Israeli government, he may be willing to give up the outposts, which are mostly wildcat operations set up without official approval.

Tanter and other analysts say the dismantling of outposts could be a key concession to Abbas that would empower the new Palestinian leader and help him crack down on militants, a key condition of the road map.

Palestinian officials, however, are unhappy with a list of 14 Israeli reservations on the road map published yesterday. They say any changes will kill the plan, and they are urging Washington to keep the road map intact.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that while Washington will take Israel's reservations into account, it will not change the road map.

Abbas and Sharon, who met for the first time on 17 May, were due to see each other again yesterday, but the meeting was canceled for logistical reasons, Palestinian and Israel officials said. They said the meeting could go ahead later this week.