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Bush hopes to have three-way summit with Palestinians, Israelis
WASHINGTON -- President Bush thrust himself deeper into the Mideast peace process Wednesday, arranging to meet in Jordan next week with the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinians and planning to attend a separate summit in Egypt with Arab leaders.
Yasser Arafat -- not invited to either meeting -- remained a wild card. The longtime PLO leader's attempts to inject himself into the process threatened to undermine Bush's efforts to deal exclusively with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"The president has been unequivocal about who he's working with because his focus is on working with people who are dedicated to peace," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Bush's Middle East diplomacy represents his most direct involvement yet in attempting to end years of violence and to build support for a U.S.-backed peace plan that envisions an independent Palestinian state as early as 2005.
After visits to Poland, Russia and a Group of Eight summit of industrial democracies in Evian, France, Bush will make three stops in the Middle East, White House officials announced.
On Tuesday, June 3, he will meet with Arab leaders at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. The following day he will go to the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, meeting first with Jordan's King Abdullah II and then, separately, with Sharon and Abbas. If things go well, then he, Sharon and Abbas will meet jointly.
Bush's final stop will be a June 5 visit to U.S. troops in Doha, Qatar, the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command -- from where the Iraq war was run. Bush will not visit U.S. troops in Iraq, Fleischer said.
White House officials emphasized that the three-way summit in Jordan would take place "conditions permitting," an acknowledgment that things can change quickly in the volatile region.
"This is going to be a long process, and its going to have ups and downs as it always has had," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, told reporters.
"The president just believes that this is a good time to sit down face to face, eye to eye with the leaders who have responsibilities for trying to bring about that peace," she added.
When he meets in Egypt with Arab leaders, Bush "expects a solid expression of support" for the peace plan, said Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The president will also look to the Arab leaders to "increasingly isolate those who support terror" and to help the Palestinians restore security arrangements, Powell told reporters at the State Department.
The summit of Arab leaders was organized by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In Cairo, Mubarak said he also invited Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Jordan's Abdullah, and Abbas.
Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and Elliott Abrams, head of Mideast affairs at the National Security Council, left Washington Wednesday for the region to pave the way for Bush's trip. The envoys planned to visit Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Ahead of the three-way meeting with Bush, Abbas and Sharon tentatively planned to meet with each other on Thursday. At that session, Abbas will ask his Israeli counterpart for an explicit declaration accepting the Palestinians' right to statehood, Palestinian officials said Wednesday.
The sides have been wrangling over how to implement the peace plan -- co-authored by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia -- since it was presented last month.
An Israeli government official said that Israel would consider issuing a declaration on Palestinian statehood -- but probably as part of a package, to be announced at the meeting with Bush, that would include a credible Palestinian crackdown on militant groups that have been attacking Israelis.
The Abbas-Sharon meeting originally set for Wednesday was delayed for a day, apparently at the request of Arafat, whom Israel and the United States have accused of terrorism.
U.S. officials made it clear that, as far as they're concerned, Arafat no longer has a role in the peace process.
Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, praised Bush and his administration for playing a more active role in peacemaking, but he said his government differs from the United States on Arafat's role. "We cannot agree and do not agree that Arafat is irrelevant," he said.
Arafat grudgingly appointed Abbas as prime minister under international pressure, as efforts to move forward on a new peace plan intensified.
The president will leave the G-8 summit in France a day early to focus next week on Middle East peace issues, the White House said.