President Bush said Friday he is exploring the possibility of a three-way meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to try to expedite progress on the international "road map" for Middle East peace. Mr. Bush spoke after an agreement that apparently ends Israel's holdout against accepting the peace plan.
The Bush administration, after high-level talks this week with a senior envoy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has publicly committed itself to "fully and seriously" address Israel's concerns about the international "road map" to Middle East pace.
The announcement is expected to lead to the Israeli cabinet's acceptance of the peace plan, perhaps as soon as its next meeting on Sunday. It may also trigger stepped-up U.S. diplomacy in the region including a three-way summit involving President Bush, Mr. Sharon, and the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
In a talk with reporters in Crawford, Texas with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, President Bush said Mr. Sharon agreed to accept the "road map" after he assured him of the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, and promised to "address any concerns that might arise" regarding Israel's security as peace efforts move forward.
Mr. Bush confirmed that the idea of a three-way summit is being examined. News reports have said the President might add a stop in the Middle East for the summit to the European trip he is due to begin late next week.
"I'm exploring the opportunities as to whether or not I should meet with Prime Minister Abu Mazen as well as Prime Minister Sharon," the president said. " If a meeting advances progress toward two states living side-by-side in peace, I will strongly consider such a meeting. I'm committed to working toward peace in the Middle East."
Though the new Palestinian leader endorsed the "road map" upon its release April 30, Mr. Sharon had refused to do so without a cessation of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis, like the suicide bombings which prompted him to cancel a critical Washington visit this week.
Arab leaders had warned the United States against altering the "road map" to accommodate Israeli reservations. At a Paris news conference Friday with other G8 foreign ministers, Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed that the peace plan the product of months of work by U.S., Russian, European Union and United Nations diplomats would not be changed.
"We have told the Israeli government that we would take their comments into consideration and address them fully and seriously as we went forward in the implementation of the road map," secretary powell said. " But this does not require us to change the road map. It is a good document that leads to the President's vision of two states, living in peace, side-by-side, the vision that I think all of us here hold."
The document calls for a series of corresponding security and political steps by Israel and the Palestinians leading to a final settlement providing for full Palestinian statehood and Arab-wide recognition of Israel by the end of 2005.
The plan is already close to being behind schedule. The first phase of the program, calling for among other things a freeze on Israeli settlement activity and an unconditional cessation of Palestinian violence, is supposed to be completed by the end of this month.
President Bush made telephone appeals for action for the "road map" to both Mr. Sharon and Prime Minister Abbas earlier this week, and Wednesday he had his first meeting with a member of the new Palestinian cabinet, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.