Bush agrees to three-way Middle East summit in Jordan

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The Independent Online

President Bush will meet the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in Jordan next Wednesday in an effort to push forward the road-map for peace, the White House confirmed yesterday.

Finally placing himself at the centre of efforts to find a Middle East settlement, Mr Bush will hold the three-way summit with Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas at the Red Sea port of Aqaba.

"We fully expect the meeting to take place," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. "The President very much looks forward to meeting with Prime Minister Abbas for the first time as well as meeting with Prime Minister Sharon again. Mr Abbas is committed to reforms and moving the process forward as well as cracking down on terrorists."

He added: "We want to make sure the environment is ripe for productive talks."

Mr Bush has long resisted taking a personal interest in efforts to secure a Middle East settlement, and his spokesman even suggested last year that the former president Bill Clinton's efforts had created unrealistic expectations.

But with the Palestinians having bowed to US pressure to select a prime minister to lead their negotiations - sidelining the Palestinian Authority's chairman, Yasser Arafat - Washington believes that there is now an opportunity for progress to be made.

The White House also confirmed that Mr Bush would meet the leaders of several Arab states at a separate meeting on Tuesday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, said that the President "expects a solid expression of support" for the US-backed plan, which calls for the establishment of a separate Palestinian state by 2005. He said that Mr Bush would also look to the Arab leaders to "increasingly isolate those who support terror".

There had been concerns that the much-anticipated meeting might have been scuppered after Mr Arafat demanded a one-day postponement, telling the PLO's executive committee that he wanted to review security proposals before Mr Abbas met Mr Sharon. Mr Arafat has not been invited to the summit.

Yesterday, Mr Abbas urged the Israeli government to drop its reservations to the road-map and called for calm in the build-up to the meeting.

In an interview with Israel's Haaretz newspaper, he said: "This is a historic opportunity to return to a track of normalcy. We are saying to the Israelis 'Follow the map and don't waste time over details.'"

Palestinian officials said Mr Abbas would ask Mr Sharon for an explicit declaration accepting Palestinian statehood. An Israeli government official said Israel would consider issuing such a declaration, but only as part of a package that would include a credible Palestinian crackdown on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups.

The road-map outlines reciprocal steps leading to an end to violence and creation of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians embraced it immediately, but Israel followed suit much more reluctantly, only after Washington agreed to address its reservations. The outline officially remains unaltered.

Mr Bush's trip to the Middle East, following the conclusion of the G8 summit in Evian, France, will also take him to the regional headquarters of the US Central Command in Qatar, where he will meet troops recently involved in the war in Iraq. In Aqaba he will also meet King Abdullah of Jordan.