- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

President Bush made a strong start down a perilous road this week, engineering a pair of Middle East peace summits and identifying himself with a diplomatic task that has frustrated many of his Oval Office predecessors.

Senior U.S. officials were openly exuberant about the fruits of Mr. Bush’s peacemaking efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after a summit with Arab leaders in Egypt on Tuesday and yesterday’s three-way talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

They were particularly pleased with strong statements by Mr. Abbas denouncing “terrorism against the Israelis wherever they may be” as he stood beside Mr. Bush.

“I have never heard, coming out of previous leaders of the Palestinian people and Authority, that kind of unequivocal statement about ending terror,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters in Aqaba, Jordan.

But even Mr. Bush said he remained “cautious” about the prospects for ending decades of strife and political stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon instantly came under fire from hard-line elements of their electorates for giving up too much at Aqaba.

“I’m cautious because history tells you to be cautious,” Mr. Bush said during a lengthy talk with reporters on Air Force One after the talks.

“There are people who have openly declared their hostility to Israel and their desire to destroy Israeli citizens. There are people who would rather have chaos than a state.”

Many of the hardest steps — including dismantling Israeli settlements, setting boundary lines and curtailing militant Palestinian groups — were left to be addressed later.

There is also widespread doubt in the region that the Bush administration will retain its passion for a deal when the 2004 presidential campaign begins in earnest early next year.

Mr. Bush had been criticized for taking what some saw as a standoffish approach to Middle East peacemaking, in sharp contrast to President Clinton, who at one point was negotiating about individual city blocks in Jerusalem with Israeli and Palestinian officials during the Camp David summit of 2000.

But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, said Mr. Bush’s patience allowed him to come to the summit from “a position of strength and credibility” after the Iraq war and U.S. efforts to boost democracy and free trade in the region.

“I don’t think anyone else would have the gravitas with all the leaders in the region that the president has now,” she said.

“When he says he will be involved and personally engaged in the peace process now, people know this is a man who means what he says.”

Lewis Roth, assistant executive director for Americans for Peace Now, said the White House had made a conscious strategy of limiting Mr. Bush’s personal commitment to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

“There was a reasonable argument to be made that President Clinton devalued the currency of the president’s personal participation in the talks,” Mr. Roth said. “By the time Mr. Bush made his first summit trip to the region, he already had built a reputation as a man who follows up his words with deeds, and that helped set the table.”

The subtext of Mr. Bush’s mission was to convince all sides that the United States was prepared for a lengthy commitment to the peace “road map,” which also is sponsored by the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

The road map calls for a series of incremental but painful steps by both sides, leading to an independent Palestinian state by 2005. Diplomats and Arab leaders say direct U.S. pressure and persuasion will be critical to keep both sides on track.

Mr. Bush made a series of gestures designed to demonstrate American staying power, saying he had told Mr. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to make the road map “a matter of the highest priority.”

A team of American monitors under the direction of veteran diplomat John S. Wolf will oversee implementation of the road map steps. The all-U.S. team was an effort to reassure nervous Israelis, who have tried to limit the participation of Russia and leading European powers in the implementation of the peace plan.

Mr. Bush displayed an informality and spontaneity even as he dealt with some of the touchiest regional issues.

He took the wheel of a golf cart to chauffeur Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at one point in Tuesday’s summit, and later dismissed his aides for a lengthy private talk with the Arab leaders.

While Mr. Mubarak focused on the road map timetable and the various treaty commitments of the parties, Mr. Bush, in his remarks, gave a much more expansive vision of the challenges and obligations facing Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an analysis that Mr. Bush “appeared more interested in achieving progress and reaching an outcome while the Arabs seemed more interested in operating within a rigid and defined process.”

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