WASHINGTON – President Bush is preparing to travel to the Mideast early next month, deepening his involvement in efforts to end violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Events in the region could derail the plan, but Bush hopes to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt (search), administration officials said. Another possible site being explored was the royal retreat at Aqaba, Jordan (search).
Bush wants to prod them into putting the peace "road map" he helped develop into effect. Administration officials were still weighing whether the president would meet with the two leaders together or separately.
It was possible Bush would make another stop in the region as well, the leading choice being Doha, Qatar, to visit U.S. troops, three administration officials said Sunday.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, emphasized that plans could change. Political events in the region gave the plan momentum, but future developments could just as easily thwart it, a senior official said.
On Sunday morning, the White House sent a military plane carrying support personnel to Egypt and possibly later to Jordan to prepare a site for the summit.
The White House wanted the support team in position so Bush could make a last-minute decision, one official said. Others said the plan was quickly firming up, with a strong focus on a summit in Egypt.
Bush leaves this Friday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and then a summit of the major industrialized nations in Evian, France. The Mideast travel would follow that.
Sharon reluctantly embraced the road map Friday after the United States assured him publicly it would take into account Israel's objections to some parts of the proposal.
The Israeli Cabinet voted 12-7, with four abstentions, to approve the plan Sunday, but also objected to significant parts. Sharon is to meet with Abbas on Tuesday -- their second summit in 10 days -- to work out the next steps.
The Palestinians last month accepted the road map, which envisions a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005.
"We welcome this development in confirmation of prime minister Sharon's acceptance of the road map," State Department spokeswoman Tara Rigler said of the Israeli Cabinet's vote. "We will continue to work closely with both sides throughout implementation of the road map."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the vote was a "big deal, but the president's involvement is the biggest deal."
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, suggested that Bush has been on the sidelines too long.
"The Bush administration has effectively been disengaged from the ground in the Middle East, and when that happens, nothing good will happen between the Israelis and the Palestinians," Lieberman said on Fox News Sunday.
"We're indispensable there. They need us because we're the only one they trust," he said. "There's a moment of opportunity here."