WASHINGTON – Preparing for a potential round of talks next weekend in the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) held an unannounced meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff as a U.S.-backed road map (search) for peacemaking hung in the balance.
Violence has battered the blueprint and the Bush administration is trying to salvage it through diplomacy.
Powell stopped by the White House on Monday to see Sharon's aide, Dov Weisglass (search), as he met there with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's assistant for national security.
The three-way meeting was held before Powell took off for Cambodia for a conference of Asian nations.
Powell plans to go on to the Middle East toward the end of the week for talks in Jordan with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (search), Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and senior European Union officials.
They are concerned about their road map for peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians that is now battered by fighting between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that has killed scores of Israelis with homicide bombings.
Egyptian mediators were unable Monday to persuade Hamas to agree to stop the attacks, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas decided to make his own effort.
Powell said last Thursday that he was keeping his travel schedule flexible for a possible trip to Israel after the Quartet meeting in Jordan.
He would confer in Israel with Sharon and also on the West Bank with Abbas.
After scolding Israel briefly for targeting a Hamas leader last Monday, Bush has backed Sharon by calling for harsh treatment of the terror group that specializes in homicide bombings.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "there are threats to the Israelis, threats to the Palestinians, that come principally from Hamas and from the other groups of a rejectionist nature, a rejectionist front, who have no interest in peace."
Fleischer said they did not support creation of a Palestinian state and represent a threat to the Palestinian people.
Bush and his U.N., Russian and European Union partners have set their sights on a Palestinian state by 2005 established on land Israel won in the 1967 Middle East war.
The president has not called for Israeli restraint or publicly criticized targeting terror leaders for a week. In the meantime, Sharon has vowed consistently to keep up Israeli attacks on Hamas.
The Bush administration wants to build up the Palestinian Authority's security force in the hope it would dismantle Hamas and other militant groups.
American envoy John S. arrived in Jerusalem over the weekend and began talks with Israeli and Palestinian security forces. His assignment is to try to bring the level of violence down so the U.S.-backed road map for peacemaking can be put back on track.
More than 50 people were killed in last week's spate of blood-spilling. Hamas leaders and Sharon have vowed a fight to the finish.
At the same time, though, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, a senior official in the Israeli defense ministry, met Saturday night with Palestinian security minister Mohammed Dahlan on an Israeli initiative to withdraw Israeli forces from northern Gaza and see if the Palestinian Authority could control Hamas.
Egyptian mediators, meanwhile, met with Hamas leaders to seek a halt in attacks on Israel in exchange for a halt in Israel's targeting of Hamas leaders.
But Bush said over the weekend that "the free world -- those who love freedom and peace -- must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers."
And the State Department made a point of saying it was not pulling the strings on Egyptian mediation.
"We're not the puppet masters," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We don't control everybody in the world. We don't approve of every meeting that everybody in the world has."
In fact, the U.S. official said the administration had not approved Egyptian and Palestinian talks with Hamas. "I'm not encouraging their meetings. I'm not sending them out on meetings," Boucher said.
In fact, even if Hamas agrees to a cease-fire the group must be dismantled, he said.