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US Steps Up Middle East Diplomacy

The Bush administration stepped-up the pace of its Middle East diplomacy Thursday, with President Bush telephoning the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, and Secretary of State Colin Powell holding talks on the issue with French Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin. Plans are also going forward for high-level meetings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict next week in New York.

The White House provided few details of the president's conversations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah.

However, the official media of both Arab countries said the leaders stressed the importance of speedy action to resume the regional peace process, and move toward the Palestinian statehood that is a key element of Mr. Bush's Middle East plan.

Here at the State Department, Secretary of State Powell heard a similar message in his first face-to-face discussion with France's new foreign minister, Dominque de Villepin, who took office in May.

Meeting reporters after the session with Mr. Powell, the French minister said he thinks the current "vacuum" in the region "can be very dangerous" and he urged "quick" action toward a Palestinian state alongside Israel based on the lines existing before the 1967 Middle East war.

"We should not let the terrorists and the people who don't want peace take the initiative," he said. "And that's why we do feel that we should use what is available right now, the possibility of having, of course, consultations, using the 'quartet' and the meeting with the Arab countries, but also maybe to use the possibility of an international conference. Of course, not to address the direct difficult issues of Jerusalem or the refugees. But in order to create the momentum that might put pressure on everybody in order to work out for a quick settlement."

Mr. De Villepin said France agrees on the importance of far-reaching reform of the Palestinian Authority, a process President Bush says should occur before even provisional statehood for the Palestinians.

Officials here, meanwhile, say planning continues for a New York meeting next week of the so-called "quartet" on the Middle East the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations though, they say, the session has been pushed back a day to Tuesday for logistical reasons.

The talks, expected to take place at a New York hotel, will bring together Mr. Powell, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Igor Ivanov.

The officials said the "quartet" members will likely be joined at a second meeting, later Tuesday, by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, though they say final arrangements for that gathering have not been nailed down.