Bush meets with Sharon, Abbas on peace plan

Wednesday, June 4th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

AQABA, Jordan (AP) -- President Bush sought to coax the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers into making concessions for Middle East peace on Wednesday, looking to advance an internationally crafted plan after winning support from Arab leaders.

For the first time in his presidency, Bush held a joint meeting with the two leaders in the conflict. He posed with them beforehand but said nothing to journalists. Before the three-way session, he met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

At their photo session, Bush and Sharon shook hands firmly after a couple of missed attempts. Both leaders ignored a shouted question about whether they expected progress to be made. Later, when reporters put a question to Abbas about terrorism, Bush merely waved and said, "Thank you all."

"This is an important moment, a hopeful moment, a moment that holds promise," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Air Force One as Bush flew here. Still, he added, "This is the Middle East." Things could become derailed quickly, given the volatile history of the region, he said.

In a sign of the passions that fuel the conflict, a radical Palestinian group urged Abbas "not to bow to Sharon's blackmail and to adhere firmly to the need for equal commitments from the two sides." The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine urged Abbas to reject "the Israeli and U.S. preconditions that would turn the road map into a mere paper in the drawers of Sharon's government."

"The problem fundamentally is a complete lack of trust," said former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who headed an international commission that published a plan in early 2001 that prescribed steps toward resuming peace negotiations. "No one will take a first step because they don't believe the other side will reciprocate."

But, Mitchell said on NBC's "Today" show: "People on both sides now lead unbearable lives. They've had 21/2 devastating years. The alternative is looking much more attractive."

The summit site was a summer palace used by Jordan's King Abdullah II, and Bush's first meeting of the day was with the king.

From the summit, Bush was flying to Doha, Qatar, visiting U.S. troops in the forward U.S. command post here the Iraq war was managed.

Bush expressed optimism before leaving Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, for Jordan. "If all sides fulfill their obligations, we can make steady progress on the road toward Palestinian statehood, a secure Israel and a just and comprehensive peace," the president said on Tuesday.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accompanied Bush to the plane and shook hands with him before the U.S. president flew here.

Participants in the peace process sought to capitalize on progress that seemed to build a day earlier in Egypt.

"We shall continue to work for a Middle East that is free of strife and violence, living in harmony without the threat of terrorism or dangers of weapons of mass destruction," Mubarak said Tuesday, reading a statement on behalf of himself, Abbas and the leaders of Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. They met with Bush at Sharm el-Sheik, an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea.

The Arabs' statement was short on specifics, but U.S. officials said it pointed in the right direction.

And they noted one conspicuous absence from the talks. "Yasser Arafat was not here today, and Prime Minister Abbas was," said Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We saw a transformed leadership here today."

Arafat, the longtime Palestine Liberation Organization leader and symbol of the Palestinian movement, was not invited. His removal from the peace process was a major demand of Bush's plan, a so-called road map to a two-state Israel-Palestine settlement.

Ismail Abu Shanab, spokesman for Hamas, which has taken responsibility for numerous suicide bombings against Israelis, said on ABC's "Nightline": "If the (Israeli) occupation stops, the Palestinians are willing to live in peace and stop all kinds of violence."

The Palestinians want the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were seized in the 1967 Six Day War. Sharon's government has agreed to dismantle some Israeli settlements built in those territories but wants to retain others.

By the same token, Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist and normalized relations are important elements of Bush's peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sharon will issue a statement accepting the principle of a Palestinian state, an Israeli official said. Abbas will recognize Israel's right to exist side by side with a Palestinian state, the Palestinians' minister of cabinet affairs, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said on American television.

In a goodwill gesture, Israel released scores of Palestinian prisoners.

Sharon has said he probably would commit Israel to dismantling settlements erected without the approval of the Israeli government. Stopping all settlement construction is a major element of the peace plan.

Abbas was expected to pledge to stop the "military intefadeh," a reference to armed militant attacks that have killed more than 750 Israelis in the latest round of violence, including about 350 from suicide bombings. During the same period, more than 2,350 Palestinians have been killed.

But an Arab diplomat, speaking on condition he not be further identified, said Abbas objected to language on the "military intefadeh." Abbas was suggesting it be changed to "civilian popular intefadeh" or "popular intefadeh," this official said. It wasn't immediately clear why Abbas objected, and the diplomat said the objection was not expected to prevent negotiators to agree on language for a final summit declaration.

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