Israel, Palestinians try to strengthen diplomatic ties


JERUSALEM - With little progress in the Middle East peace process, Palestinian and Israeli leaders set out yesterday on separate diplomatic missions, and both sides focused on talks with President Bush set for this week and next week.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, met Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo as part of Abbas' first major foreign tour since assuming his post more than two months ago.

Abbas has been hesitant to undertake such a journey while Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is confined by Israel to his West Bank compound in Ramallah.

But Arafat has apparently given his blessing to the trip, which will include a visit to Jordan before Abbas heads to the United States to see Bush on Friday.

On the Israeli side, the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, was in Brussels, Belgium, proposing greater European involvement in Middle East peace efforts.

Shalom's speech to European Union officials was the latest Israeli effort at improving relations. Israel has criticized European countries for tilting toward the Palestinians and had sought to minimize European involvement in any peace moves.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon traveled to Britain and Norway last week as part of the effort to rebuild ties. Sharon, a frequent visitor to Bush's White House, is to meet with the president July 29.

Violence is down sharply since Palestinian factions declared a truce three weeks ago, but the Israelis and the Palestinians have been making little progress carrying out the U.S.-backed peace plan, known as the "road map." The two sides have been looking to the United States to mediate disputes, and the discussions with Bush could signal whether the pace of peacemaking will pick up.

Speaking at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he was playing host to Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, Bush said: "Both Prime Minister Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon are showing leadership and courage." Bush singled out Syria and Iran as countries that "harbor and assist terrorists."

Sharon and Abbas met Sunday in Jerusalem but did not achieve breakthroughs on the Palestinian demands for the release of more prisoners and Israeli troop withdrawals. Israel is insisting that the Palestinians arrest and disarm militants.

Israel's parliament voted 47-27 yesterday in favor of Sharon's pronouncement that Israel would dismantle Jewish settlement outposts established over the past two years without government authorization.

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