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Israeli-Palestinian Meetings Begin to Take Shape - 2003-05-28

Amid a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering and political infighting a series of high level meetings to discuss the latest international peace plan for the Middle East seems to be taking shape. While definite dates have not yet been confirmed, the meetings are seen as vital to get the peace plan off the ground.

The first piece of the diplomatic puzzle that needs to fall into place is a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

According to Mr. Abbas the talks will likely take place Thursday in Jerusalem. There's been a great deal of confusion over the timing of the meeting and political sources here say some of that stems from a turf battle between Mr. Abbas and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

President Arafat has been reluctant to share power with his new prime minister, and he rejects Israeli and American efforts to sideline him in favor of Mr. Abbas. The Palestinians asked to postpone a possible Sharon-Abbas meeting scheduled for Wednesday in order to allow the PLO Executive Committee, which Mr. Arafat controls, to discuss the agenda. Some Palestinian sources say Mr. Arafat's weighing in on the issue was meant to send a signal to Israel, the United States and to Mr. Abbas that the Palestinian president is in charge of decisions over any peace negotiations.

The Sharon-Abbas meeting would serve as a positive signal for U.S. President George W. Bush to go ahead with a summit meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba. The summit host will be Jordan's King Abdullah.

The meeting could take place next week, possibly on June 5, but that date has not been confirmed.

Prior to the Aqaba summit, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is expected to host a meeting of President Bush and several Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Egyptian sources are quoted as saying a likely date is June 4, but that date has also not been confirmed.

The aim of all these meetings is to jump start the so-called road map for Middle East peace, which envisions a series of steps to halt violence and freeze Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to pursue negotiations leading to a final peace agreement and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state by 2005.