JERUSALEM – Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) will ask Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon (search) at their upcoming meeting for an explicit declaration accepting the Palestinians' right to statehood, Palestinian officials said Wednesday.
The two leaders are tentatively scheduled to hold their second summit in as many weeks on Thursday, ahead of a three-way meeting with President Bush that the White House announced for next week in Jordan -- a diplomatic push unprecedented in 32 months of violence and aimed at jump-starting the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace (search).
The sides have been wrangling over how to implement the road map -- co-authored by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia -- since it was presented to the sides last month.
An Israeli government official said that Israel would consider issuing such a declaration on Palestinian statehood (search) but probably only as part of a package to be announced at the meeting with Bush which would include a credible Palestinian crackdown on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups who have been attacking Israelis.
Israel has been insisting that although the road map calls for parallel steps, it wouldn't budge until such a crackdown was evident.
Israel's own road map obligations include a total freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and the dismantling of scores of illegal settlement outposts erected in the past two years.
But Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat said the declaration, also mentioned in the road map, was key.
Abbas "will insist on this declaration because that's the key ... for him to go out and tell the Palestinians, 'Look, we've got the Israeli government to recognize the Palestinian state (and) we need two years in a peaceful, meaningful peace process ... It's a key for him to argue in front of Hamas and Jihad."
A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinians would be willing to issue a concurrent declaration recognizing the right of Israel to exist and calling for a complete cessation of violence.
At Abbas' first meeting with Sharon as prime minister -- on May 17 -- he demanded Israel accept the road map, which Sharon's government did on Sunday, albeit with reservations and hesitation.
The second summit, originally set for Wednesday, was delayed for a day, apparently at the request of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search), whom Israel and the United States have accused of terrorism and have been trying to sideline.
A member of the PLO executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained that the jockeying for position was Arafat's way of telling the United States, Israel and Abbas that Arafat makes the decisions over negotiations with Israel.
Abbas took office April 30 under a new law that gives the PLO executive the right of approval over negotiating steps with Israel. Arafat controls the PLO body, where Abbas is his deputy.
Arafat has been fighting a rear-guard action to limit Abbas' powers, objecting to the makeup of his Cabinet and inserting many of his stalwarts. He retains control of most of the Palestinian security forces and has kept for himself the final word over peace moves.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Abbas spoke out in favor of Arafat. "Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and should not be isolated," he said, calling on Israel to release Arafat from a virtual house arrest in his West Bank headquarters.
Sharon and Abbas met on May 17, the first Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting since the violence erupted in September 2000. No agreements emerged.
Israeli and Palestinian officials were hopeful about the three-way summit with Bush, which the White House on Thursday said will take place on June 4 in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba.
Bush "would not bother coming all the way out here to leave without a decision of some kind," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel TV.
Abed Rabbo said he hoped the trilateral summit would result in implementation of the peace plan.
Israel's conditional acceptance came a month after the Palestinians approved the formula and insisted that it be implemented unchanged. Sharon later came out and said Israel must end its rule over the Palestinians -- though he was vague about ending its control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the Haaretz interview, Abbas said he would not judge Sharon by his statements. "I know Sharon inside and out," said Abbas, who has met Sharon several times. "I'll believe him only when he implements the road map."
Palestinians demand a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, captured by Israel in 1967, and demand a total Israeli pullout.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday called Israel's acceptance of the road map "a very encouraging development."
Israel has raised 14 reservations about the plan, including a demand that the United States manage the monitoring of the sides' compliance -- but U.N. sources noted the reservations do not explicitly exclude a role for the other designers of the plan: Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
"It is something we will tackle as we move forward," Annan said of the demand.