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U.S.: Bush Set For First Foray Into Israeli-Palestinian Summitry

U.S. President George W. Bush heads to Egypt today for a meeting with Arab leaders ahead of the 4 June summit in Jordan with the prime ministers of Israel and Palestine. RFE/RL takes a look at Bush's first major face-to-face bid to revive the Middle East peace process.

Washington, 2 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time in his 2 1/2 years in the White House, U.S. President George W. Bush is set to meet in a three-way summit with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians.

Not too long ago, the Bush administration frowned on the attention given to Middle East peace by former President Bill Clinton. But U.S. officials say that after Saddam Hussein's fall from power in Iraq and the recent appointment of a new Palestinian leader, the time is ripe for Bush to put his credibility on the line and make a strong push for peace.

Bush is scheduled to discuss the new "road map" peace plan in Jordan on 4 June with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. The plan -- drawn up by the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia -- outlines reciprocal steps that would lead to a Palestinian state by 2005.

During a visit to Krakow, Poland, on 31 May, Bush outlined the goals for his trip. "Early next week, I will go to the Middle East to meet with the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers and other leaders in the region," he said. "I will remind them that the work ahead will require difficult decisions. I will remind them that for peace to prevail, all leaders must fight terrorism and shake off old arguments and old ways. No leader of conscience can accept more months and years of humiliation and killing and mourning. I will do all that I can to help the parties reach an agreement and to see that that agreement is enforced."

Prior to the summit, Bush will attend a gathering of U.S. Arab allies in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh tomorrow. He is set to depart later today from the French town of Evian, where he attended a Group of Eight (G-8) summit after stops over the weekend in Russia and Poland.

To be sure, Bush's goals are far less ambitious than the last such summit in 2000, when Clinton sought to save the dying, decade-long Oslo peace process by forging a last-gasp comprehensive settlement. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told RFE/RL: "This is not the end, it's the beginning, and this goal is to create the conditions on the ground that won't make peace, but will make peace possible. The objective is more modest than what was tried in the year 2000, but frankly there's been a lot of enmity, mistrust, and this is a chance to try to get things back on track."

Bush's first Israeli-Palestinian summit appears to be setting up for a fairly positive outcome after symbolic gestures from both sides. Sharon and Abbas met for the second time on 29 May. Since then, Israel has made what it calls "goodwill gestures," allowing some 25,000 Palestinians with permits into Israel to work each day.

Although some Palestinian officials shrugged off Israel's move as a token gesture, easing restrictions on Palestinians is a key first step for Israel to take under the road map.

Murhaf Jouejati is a Syrian-born professor at George Washington University in the U.S. capital. He told RFE/RL: "What is interesting is that this U.S. presidential engagement is sort of pushing both sides to not be the ones to torpedo this initiative. And so as a result, it is gradually creating a momentum of its own and forcing both sides to act positive."

Israel also signaled yesterday that it would be willing to accept a possible truce, brokered by Abbas, under which Palestinian militants would cease all violence against Israel. Previously, Israel has demanded that the Palestinian Authority destroy the groups. Abbas said he hopes to negotiate such an agreement within three weeks.

Moreover, both Abbas and Sharon have made significant rhetorical gestures. Sharon, for the first time, used the word "occupation" last week, saying Israel sooner or later will have to leave Palestinian territories. Abbas, meanwhile, has forcefully spoken out against terror, saying it has only lead to death and despair for Palestinians.

These are small steps, but vital if the peace process is to be restarted, Makovsky told RFE/RL. "I think it's remarkable that you're starting to see some leadership," he said. "And this is crucial. So Sharon talked about occupation. Abu Mazen is talking about terrorism being morally wrong and how terrorism de-legitimizes the Palestinian cause. I would not underestimate the value of this leadership, and that's what will be key in trying to create some long-term viability for a partnership between these two."

Bush himself commented on this development during his remarks on 31 May in Krakow. "Today in the Middle East, the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership which has condemned terror is a hopeful sign that the parties can agree to two states -- Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," he said.

Many Arabs, though, are skeptical about Bush's determination to bring peace to the troubled region and his ability to remain impartial. But Jouejati, who has also been an adviser to the Syrian government, said the summit in Egypt could at least begin to dispel those notions.

"This shows an engagement on the part of a U.S. president who is willing to put his credibility on the line in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. The contact, the physical contact, is a good thing and it shows the region that the U.S. president is serious about launching a new peace process," Jouejati said.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush will meet with Abbas, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, and the kings of Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain.

Makovsky said the gathering could also give a boost to Abbas, a longtime aide to Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. "I think the summit with the Arab states is important because they also could provide some political cover for Abu Mazen and echo some of his themes on de-legitimization of terrorism and make it clear that he is the Palestinian interlocutor in this transition to the post-Arafat era," he said.

Abbas was recently appointed prime minister after intense pressure from Washington and Israel on the Palestinians to find an alternative to Arafat, who they say is compromised by terrorism.