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US Envoys Prepare for Bush Mideast Summit - 2003-05-30

U.S. envoys are in the Middle East to prepare for next week's visit to the region by President Bush and his separate meetings with Arab and Israeli leaders. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met late Thursday to try to iron out differences over the U.S.-backed peace plan for the Middle East.

An Israeli foreign ministry delegation is reported heading to Aqaba, Jordan, to prepare for next week's summit meeting of Mr. Sharon, Mr. Abbas and President Bush.

At the same time, American envoys Elliot Abrams and William Burns are here to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials to hammer out details for the Aqaba summit and statements to be released afterward.

This will be President Bush's first trip to the region, and it will be widely viewed as a test of his commitment to implementing the so-called road map for peace in the area. Mr. Bush is expected to hold talks with several Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday, before heading to Aqaba to meet with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.

The meeting in Jerusalem Thursday night between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas was seen as a vital prelude to the Aqaba summit. Both sides said the talks were positive.

Israel announced a number of gestures to ease restrictions on the Palestinians, including lifting travel bans, granting permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, releasing some prisoners, releasing funds owed the Palestinian Authority and withdrawing Israeli troops from the center of cities and towns in the West Bank. Mr. Sharon repeated his offer to move his troops from areas where the Palestinians feel they can take over security.

There was, however, no overall agreement on the pullback of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Part of the problem is the state of the Palestinian security forces, which have been severely weakened by Israeli military operations over the past 32 months.

The Palestinian newspaper Al Ayam reported Friday that American observers are already on the ground to help rebuild the Palestinian security services, and to monitor actions taken by either side as they begin implementing the road map.

There are other outstanding security issues as well. Mr. Sharon wants Mr. Abbas to disarm, dismantle, arrest and bring to justice Palestinian militants who have been carrying out attacks against Israel.

Mr. Abbas has said he is working on the security issue. But, at this point, it seems he would prefer to negotiate with groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, rather than enter into open confrontation with them. The Palestinian prime minister said he is close to reaching a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, possibly by next week.

The road map calls for a series of steps to bring both sides back to the negotiating table to work out a final peace agreement and establish a Palestinian state in 2005. It also envisages broader peace agreements between Israel and Arab states in the region.