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UPDATE 5-Bush placates Arabs on balance of Mideast plan

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By Jonathan Wright

WASHINGTON, July 18 (Reuters) - Answering Arab complaints about his Middle East peace strategy, U.S. President George W. Bush said on Thursday that Israel and the Palestinians must share responsibility for ending the cycle of violence.

Arab foreign ministers who met him at the White House welcomed Bush's attitude and said they detected a U.S. commitment to work hard for a Palestinian state.

Bush, speaking in the Oval Office before talks with the ministers, told reporters: "Our vision for peace understands that all parties have got responsibilities. The United States has a responsibility... The Israelis have a responsibility. The Palestinians have a responsibility." The Saudi minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told reporters after the meeting: "We were particularly pleased and happy that he told us that peace would only come if all sides take their responsibilities seriously."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who saw the Arab ministers at the State Department earlier, gave a commitment to work "as hard as possible" to bring about a Palestinian state through a political solution within three years.

Powell made a symbolic concession to the Arab point of view by giving prominence to political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after weeks of putting most of the emphasis on the need for security for Israelis.

"We also focused on the third track -- the need for clear understanding amongst all parties that only a political solution will bring an end to this tragic situation," he said.

The Arabs had come to Washington skeptical about aspects of the new U.S. policy announced by Bush on June 24. They complained that Palestinians would have to meet Israeli demands before the United States expected anything from the Israelis.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said in the morning that the U.S. approach was unbalanced and needed changing.

"Everything the Palestinians have to do is upfront and everything the Israelis have to do is delayed and is conditional on the will of the Israeli government. I don't think this is a good formula," he told reporters.

"SINCERITY AND DECISIVENESS" The Arabs also disagree with Washington's demand for new Palestinian leaders before progress is possible.

But the ministers, from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, said they were pleased and encouraged by their talks.

"We were very much impressed by the sincerity and the decisiveness of the president in his effort to pursue the peace process til its end," said Prince Saud.

The Jordanian minister, Marwan al-Muasher, said the ministers were "very encouraged by what the president said both privately and publicly about his vision of peace."

"We also wanted to make sure that there is a commitment to an endgame and a timeline and we saw that commitment loud and clear by the president, by the secretary," he said.

"I can safely say that we come out of the meeting very encouraged that on all these points we saw a determined president, a determined administration, to work with all of us in order to achieve this (a peace plan)," he added.

The United States has agreed to differ with Arab and European governments on the future of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the participants said the U.S. campaign to replace him did not figure prominently in the discussions.

"It did not not come up in any extended way. I think we first of all both agree to disagree on this issue and to focus on the reform process itself," said Muasher.

Prince Saud quoted Bush's remarks on the subject on Wednesday, which did not exclude the possibility that Arafat might continue as a figurehead with a powerful prime minister.

The meetings on Thursday followed up on Middle East talks in New York on Tuesday between Powell and representatives of the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The most tangible outcome of the week's consultations is that the United States says it is making progress on a plan for restructuring the Palestinian security forces to replace the security forces who have failed to stop attacks on Israelis.

But U.S. officials said they did not know when the United States will present the plan to the Israelis and Palestinians, who would have to approve it.



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