Bush raises hopes of three-way summit

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The Independent US

President George Bush wasted no time in responding to the victory of Mahmoud Abbas, inviting the Palestinian leader to the White House and urging Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises necessary for peace.

President George Bush wasted no time in responding to the election victory of Mahmoud Abbas, inviting the Palestinian leader to the White House and urging Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises necessary for peace.

Mr Bush told reporters that he planned to speak by phone with Mr Abbas yesterday and looked forward to meeting him "here in Washington if he chooses to come here".

Unofficially, Washington was abuzz with speculation that the meeting could be extended into a three-way summit, embracing the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as well.

Mr Bush's words alone are an indication of how the climate has changed since the death of Yasser Arafat, whom Mr Bush had publicly branded as the prime obstacle to peace in the Middle East, as a man who connived with terrorists, and whom the President refused to meet in person.

Equally noteworthy in the President's remarks was the emphasis on Israel's duty to take steps to grasp the new opportunity for progress towards a settlement, in the short term by fulfilling its promise to withdraw from Gaza.

Israel, he said, had to "keep a vision of two states living side by side in peace", and added that as the Palestinians began to develop state institutions, "the Israeli government must support the development of those institutions". Jerusalem, Mr Bush declared, "can play and must play an important part in the development of a Palestinian state".

Even so, despite the tangible sense here of a real but fleeting opportunity to break the logjam, it was anything but clear last night precisely what action the US would take to implement the virtually moribund road map plan for peace. This would notably require Washington to press Israel to withdraw from the West Bank as well ­ something the Bush administration has never done.

Sean McCormack, the National Security Council spokesman, refused to confirm reports that Mr Bush would name a special Middle East envoy to push the process ahead. Nor would he confirm reports that the administration was readying a $200m (£107m) boost in aid to the Palestinians, to help smooth the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

He also rejected calls from some quarters here that the moment had come for the US to "impose" a settlement but said that the real onus was on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. "We will be deeply involved," Mr McCormack said, "but the key is that the parties in the region make concessions".

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