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Bush to meet with Arab leaders before Sharon, Abbas summit

From Kelly Wallace

Sources tell CNN that President Bush will travel to the Mideast next week.
Sources tell CNN that President Bush will travel to the Mideast next week.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is making plans to meet in Egypt early next week with key Arab leaders in addition to holding a summit with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, administration and diplomatic sources told CNN Tuesday.

The personal diplomacy would represent by far the president's biggest personal investment in trying to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas have postponed a meeting originally scheduled for Wednesday, sources from both sides said.

The sources cited scheduling conflicts, but said the men should meet before the end of the week.

Bush administration sources said the plans for the president's Mideast meetings could change because of security concerns and developments in the region.

But they also said the White House could announce the travel plans as early as Wednesday, adding that the Middle East stops would come at the end of Bush's trip to Europe for the annual summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. The "G-8," meeting will be June 1-3 in Evian, France.

The three-way meeting with Bush, Sharon and Abbas is to be held in Aqaba, Jordan. The Jordanian government announced those plans, and senior U.S. officials confirmed them, while adding that security and other concerns could force changes.

Both the Palestinians and Israelis have accepted the U.S.-supported "road map" to peace, clearing the way for a series of steps that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state within three years.

The first phase of the road map involves the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian zones reoccupied during the current uprising and a freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian officials are required to crack down on militant groups that have carried out attacks against Israelis.

Prior to that three-way meeting, Bush is now almost certain to stop at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik for consultations with key Arab leaders, including top officials from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the U.S. and diplomatic sources said.

An additional stop in the region to salute U.S. troops involved in the war in Iraq also is likely, the U.S. officials said.

Sharon qualifies 'occupation'

In Jerusalem, Sharon Tuesday tried to clarify comments he made Monday, issuing a statement through his press office.

Sharon "made it clear today ... that when he used the expression 'occupation' at yesterday's meeting ... he meant that we do not want to rule over the Palestinian population in the areas in dispute," the statement read.

Monday, Sharon said, "You can not like the word, but what is happening is an occupation -- to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians."

"It can't continue endlessly," he continued. "Do you want to stay forever in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, in Bethlehem? I don't think that's right."

Sharon, a longtime "hawk," had his office issue a "clarifying statement" after Israel's attorney general said the Palestinian territories remain "disputed" land.

Even so, Sharon's choice of words -- coming from a political leader who has backed Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and an ex-general who has led troops against Palestinians -- stunned Israelis across the political spectrum.

CNN Correspondents John King and Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.

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