WASHINGTON – President Bush faces appeals from Palestinian and Israeli leaders to come down on their side as Middle East peacemaking drifts into a crucial but indecisive phase.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search), due to call at the White House on Friday, wants Jewish settlers to start clearing out of the West Bank to make way for a Palestinian state.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), who sees Bush next Tuesday, is seeking U.S. help in pressuring Abbas to begin dismantling Palestinian militant groups.
So far, the two sides have walked some way down the road to peacemaking, but big moves laid out in a U.S.-backed blueprint have been deferred. Highest immediate priority was given to restoring order.
Abbas and Sharon are looking for more as they prepare to see the president, his top advisers and senior members of Congress.
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will get the red-carpet treatment that Bush has denied Yasser Arafat, who remains recognized by the Palestinians and most other governments as the movement's leader.
Bush concluded early in his presidency that Arafat was a failed leader and denied him a White House invitation. Abbas, on the other hand, has won praise as a reformer.
His popularity among the Palestinians could depend on whether he enlists Bush's support in pressuring Sharon, who has moved to dismantle some unauthorized outposts but says established settlements are a different matter entirely.
Abbas, arriving late Wednesday, will get the full treatment from the administration and Congress. Thursday he will see Condoleezza Rice (search), the national security adviser. And after lunch with Bush at the White House on Friday, Abbas has separate meetings set with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Senior members of Congress will meet Thursday morning with the Palestinian prime minister.
More than 70 House members signed and sent to the White House on Monday a letter approving Bush's decision to deliver $20 million in U.S. assistance directly to the Palestinian Authority (search).
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., a signer, said, "To win public support for dismantling the terrorist infrastructure, Abu Mazen must be able to show the Palestinian people that his government can deliver essential social services that are now provided only by Hamas and other radical groups."
With the approval of Congress, U.S. aid has been distributed among the Palestinians for more than a year without going to the Palestinian Authority. Allegations of corruption prompted the move.
Bush ordered a shift this month to dramatize that he has confidence in Abbas and the Palestinians' finance minister, Salam Fayad.
Sharon, who also enjoys strong White House support, sent his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, ahead to Washington for meetings with congressional leaders Tuesday and with Cheney, Rice and Powell on Wednesday.
In Brussels, Shalom told European Union officials Monday he would welcome greater European involvement in Middle East peacemaking.
Traditionally, mindful of years of votes against Israel in the United Nations, the Jewish state has tried to keep European governments out of the process.
The Bush administration invited the European Union to co-sponsor the so-called road map to peacemaking, along with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Russian government.
"I don't accept the formula that has existed for many years, that Israel can live without Europe and Europe can live without Israel," Shalom said. "That's why I'm encouraging the EU all the time to play a key role in the peace process."
Sharon arrives in Washington on Sunday evening, confers with Israeli officials on Monday and sees Bush in the Oval Office and over lunch, and then Cheney, next Tuesday.