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Mideast Peace is a Priority - Bush - 2001-08-07

President Bush has written to Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to reassure him that the United States still considers peace in the Middle East a top priority. Mr. Bush has been criticized for not taking a more active role in ending Israeli-Palestinian violence.

President Bush says he wrote the Egyptian leader to tell him that his administration is still "very much engaged" in the peace process and takes the recent upsurge in violence "very seriously." Mr. Bush says he told President Mubarak that peace in the Middle East "is a top foreign policy priority" and that the United States and Egypt "need to work together to convince both sides to break the cycle of violence."

The president sent his letter one day after Egypt's foreign minister said Cairo was "astonished" that the Bush administration is not doing more to stop Israeli attacks on suspected Palestinian militants.

This administration has been less involved in the Middle East than former President Clinton. Mr. Bush sent his CIA director to arrange an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire but that collapsed with another round of violence.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the Bush administration is calling on both sides to get back to a ceasefire and a blueprint for peace drawn-up by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. "The parties need to take steps to stop the violence, and we are looking to them to cease the violence and get on with the implementation of the Mitchell committee recommendations," he says.

Mr. Boucher says the Bush administration is involved in the process but that only the Palestinians and Israelis can decide to stop the fighting.

President Bush, who is on vacation at his ranch in Texas, says the Mitchell plan will work only after the fighting stops. He told reporters that if Palestinian and Israeli leaders agree to the plan, "hopefully sanity will prevail."

Palestinian leaders say the Bush administration should be pushing Israel to accept international monitors included in the Mitchell plan. White House officials say those monitors would be useful only if both sides accept them. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused them.

Arab leaders are also angry about a television interview last week by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in which he appeared to justify Israeli raids on suspected Palestinian security threats. The White House says those comments were misinterpreted and that the vice president was saying that both Israel and the Palestinian authority find justifications for their actions.

Mr. Boucher says the State Department is looking at "different ways that we might proceed, different ways we might help." But he said the administration does not have a back-up plan to the Mitchell approach and believes that is the only way forward.