WASHINGTON – Momentum in Middle East peacemaking stalled Tuesday as the Palestinians postponed a meeting between Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search). The Bush administration said it was only a technical delay.
Abbas and Sharon had been scheduled to hold their second meeting on Wednesday, but the Palestinians notified Israel that it would be postponed so Abbas could consult with Yasser Arafat, an Israeli official said.
If prolonged, this could set back tentative plans for President Bush to meet with the two leaders in the area next week. However, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that a Bush meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders remained "under active consideration."
"It's a very hopeful moment, and the president wants to do everything in his power to make it the most hopeful summit possible," Fleischer said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he had been informed that postponement of a Sharon-Abbas meeting was "for technical reasons." And Fleischer said he "would not be surprised if a bilateral meeting still took place in the near future."
Last Friday, a senior U.S. official said the president could arrange a summit on short notice.
Another senior U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity before the meeting was postponed, accused Arafat of trying to undercut Abbas, who is known also as Abu Mazen (search).
Abbas has accepted the U.S.-backed formula for peacemaking that would lead to establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. Sharon and then the Israeli Cabinet followed suit, but both sides have reservations about its provisions.
Israel is concerned that the roadmap does not sufficiently improve Israel's security against terror attacks and does not assure that Abbas would promote democracy among the Palestinians.
The Palestinians, for their part, are skeptical that Sharon would permit establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Sharon took a big step toward conciliation over the weekend in declaring he wanted to end Israel's occupation, an apparent reference to its control of the West Bank and Gaza (search) for 36 years.
But on Tuesday Israeli officials said that Sharon was not specifically declaring the West Bank occupied territory.
Boucher said there was some uncertainty about what Sharon had said. But, the spokesman said, "the Israelis have always said they don't want to stay in the area."
Besides setting up a Palestinian state, the roadmap calls for an end to 32 months of conflict, a freeze in construction of Jewish homes on the West Bank and a dismantling of some Israeli "outposts" in the area.