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Bush puts Mideast speech on hold

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke in Jerusalem in April as he wrapped up his last Middle East mission.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's speech on the Middle East is "on hold" because of the latest suicide bombing, the White House said Wednesday.

The speech had been planned for late this week, possibly Thursday.

A suicide bomber set off a blast at a bus stop in the French Hill neighborhood of northeast Jerusalem Wednesday evening, killing at least seven people. Israeli police said. It was the second terror attack in Jerusalem in two days. (Full Story)

The news of Bush's decision came as Palestinian sources speaking on background said the Palestinian Authority is dropping a demand for the right of return for refugees -- one of the most contentious issues holding up a Middle East peace deal.

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The Palestinian Authority is also making other major concessions on peace with Israel in a two-page document sent to the United States, the Palestinian officials said Wednesday. (Full story)

Powell may be sent to the region

The White House was considering sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East next week to promote the president's new framework for progress toward peace, even as Bush and his aides continued to debate Wednesday what that vision will be, administration officials told CNN.

Most Arab diplomats who have met with Bush are expecting him to propose an interim or provisional Palestinian state as a step toward final negotiations, but senior U.S. officials have said a final decision has not been made on that controversial idea.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced his opposition to the proposal. So did the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan -- the only Arab states that have diplomatic relations with Israel -- after a meeting Wednesday in Amman.

"We don't understand the meaning of a provisional Palestinian state. It should be permanent in line with the definition of a final solution," Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said.(Full Story)

The idea also is generating opposition in Congress, and Vice President Dick Cheney is said to be skeptical of recognizing an interim Palestinian state before seeing proof of Palestinian reforms.

Aides say the president's goal is to offer a road map to resuming peace talks, but not a highly detailed new U.S. peace proposal.

Instead, the president hopes to create a sense of progress by laying out a plan for Palestinian Authority reforms and his goal of a permanent Palestinian state.

The Bush framework will call for an international Middle East conference this summer -- officials said the target now is August or September. The goal of that meeting would be to make additional progress toward narrowing differences between Israeli and Arab positions, and perhaps debating timetables for some of the goals Bush is to outline in his framework.

The administration's outreach in advance of the announcement included a rare White House visit by a senior Palestinian official. Nabil Sha'ath, a top adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, met with several White House officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, to discuss Palestinian peace proposals and ongoing efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority.

Both said they expected Bush to meet with top advisers on the issue sometime Wednesday.

A Powell trip is viewed as a logical follow-up to the Bush speech, but a final decision will not be made until the timing and contents of the president's speech are settled, the officials said.

Powell's goal would be to explain the initiative and to build support for an international conference on the Middle East. "But the president has to go first," one of the officials said.




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