White House Hosts 2 Days of Mideast Diplomacy

Jordan's King Abdullah II told President Bush on Wednesday that stalled negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis should be based on "clear grounds and fixed timetables" as the United States pushes for reaching a Mideast peace agreement by next January.

Bush, beginning two days of Mideast diplomacy at the White House, met with the king over breakfast. It was a quick session; the king arrived and left within the span of an hour.

Later, Abdullah met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who also came to Washington to see Bush. They will meet on Thursday. The Palestinians and Israelis remain far apart on peace negotiations, and Abbas is seeking U.S. help to move things forward, his spokesman said.

"The gaps are still there," Abbas' spokesman Abu Rudeina said. "The Palestinian and Israeli positions are still far from each other. That requires American intervention."

There was no immediate readout of the talks from the White House, but the Jordanian Embassy said Abdullah stressed the importance of U.S. involvement and Washington's role in overcoming obstacles to progress.

Abbas is struggling for authority in the West Bank against the militant Hamas movement that controls Gaza. Bush hopes to achieve some sort of peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel before leaving office in January.

Abbas wants a framework peace agreement by January 2009 with timetables and specifics leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and not just a "declaration of principles" as suggested by some Israel officials, his spokesman said.

Abbas, on his way to Washington, told traveling reporters he would focus his talks with Bush on achieving a real deal and not just promises.

"We seek a framework agreement that includes all the core issues and how these core issues will be resolved — and ending with the establishment of a Palestinian independent state," Abbas told reporters Tuesday.

The core issues remain the final borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem, disputed Israeli settlements, refugees, water and the future relations between the two states.

The White House meetings are a prelude to next month's trip by Bush to the Middle East to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. He also is expected to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The administration is holding out hope it can arrange a peace summit during the visit, perhaps at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where Bush is now set to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But there are deep misgivings about such a meeting among both Arabs and the Israelis given the slow pace of negotiations, and prospects for the summit remain unclear, officials said.

Abdullah expressed hope that Bush's visit would enhance peace prospects and encourage Israelis and Palestinians to make progress.

"King Abdullah said it is important that Israel refrains from measures that would jeopardize negotiations with the Palestinians and called for an end to all Israeli settlement activities, a lifting of the blockade and restrictions on the movement of Palestinians," the embassy said.

Before Bush's trip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to travel to Israel and the West Bank after attending a Palestinian donors' conference that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will host in London on May 2. A ministerial meeting of the quartet — which includes the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — is expected at the same time.

Officials said the administration, which has already pledged $555 million to the Palestinians this year, was looking at slight increases to announce at the conference, but that a major boost in aid was unlikely, as Congress has not yet approved the budget.