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The U.S. administration is demanding Israel formally accept the road map to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so that it does not appear to be recalcitrant trying to delay advancing the political process.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff, attorney Dov Weisglass met yesterday with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in an effort to find a formula that would enable Israel to accept the plan, while taking into account its comments and reservations about it. Rice also meant with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, who is in Washington for parallel talks with administration officials.

Meanwhile, reports in the U.S. press say President George W. Bush is considering inviting Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to a three-way summit in Geneva, possibly next week, when Bush is attending a G8 summit. The New York Times reported yesterday morning that Bush is also considering a Middle East trip, to promote his peace plan, but Israeli and American officials downplayed the idea, saying it would not be likely if the president was not certain of achieving progress during the trip.

As reported last night by Channel Two news, the U.S. administration has reversed its position in the last two days. Until now, the Americans have been saying there is no importance to a formal acceptance of the plan, and that the important thing is to start its implementation on the ground.

But the Palestinians have insisted that they won't start acting against terror until Israel declares its formal acceptance of the road map. The issue was at the heart of the meeting between Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting last Saturday night.

U.S. President George W. Bush told Sharon on Tuesday that it is important to proceed with the political process according to the road map. American officials told senior Israeli officials that they are under heavy pressure from Arab countries to make Israel accept the road map. They made clear that the issue of "acceptance" not become an obstacle to its implementation, giving the Palestinians an excuse not to act against the terror groups. The administration has also rejected Israel's distinction between Bush's June 24 speech and the road map meant to implement it.

The road map, which was formally presented to the sides on April 30, calls for a three-phase process: calming the situation on the ground; establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders; and a permanent agreement by 2005. Israel has accepted the phases in principle, but has presented many reservations about the specifics of the plan, starting with a demand the process begin with the Palestinians dropping their demand for the right of return of refugees to the country.

The road map puts the refugee issue in the third phase of the process, during the final status negotiations. Israel is also against the road map's predication on the Saudi Arabian initiative, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories captured in 1967. Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom have told the Americans that the road map, in its current form, could not pass the current government coalition.

The administration is also demanding that Sharon dismantle the illegal outposts in the West Bank, in a move that is clearly seen by the world, immediately after the next meeting between Sharon and Bush. But the administration has accepted an Israeli distinction being drawn between "illegal" outposts and "legal" ones. For Washington, the issue has become a matter of Sharon meeting his commitments.