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Middle East: U.S. Looks At Arab Summit As 'Prelude To Action'

U.S. President George W. Bush's meeting with Arab leaders in Egypt yesterday was a centerpiece of American efforts to build regional support for a new Middle East peace process and for cutting off funds for terrorism. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the summit and to what extent Washington won the solid political commitments it was seeking.

Prague, 4 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has launched what he promises will be a sustained personal effort to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and weaken regionally based terrorist groups.

Meeting with five Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh yesterday, Bush called on both Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions for peace and for regional leaders to back the effort.

He called on Israel and the Palestinians to work toward an agreement that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and end violence between them. Both are goals of a new internationally backed "road map" for Middle East peace, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

At the same time, Bush called on his summit partners -- the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- to help cut off funding for terrorist groups that threaten both Israel and America. These groups include Al-Qaeda -- responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on America -- and Palestinian Islamic militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which regularly launch suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

After the summit, host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak presented a statement on behalf of the Arab leaders vowing to advance the cause of peace.

Bush said he will dedicate his own time and energy to seeing that these goals are achieved. He is in the Jordanian city of Aqaba today for meetings with Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Immediately after the summit, top U.S. officials underlined what they saw as important achievements.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters the summit showed that the new "road map" -- drafted by the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the UN -- has broad support from Arab states.

"Meetings like today give the president [Bush] confidence that, in fact, this process will have and does have the broad support of the Arab neighbors," Rice said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the summit had advanced efforts to weaken the ability of terrorist groups to undermine regional peace efforts and international stability.

"Especially important are cooperative efforts to ensure that no assistance reaches terrorist groups who are opposed to the peace process. I think this was a very significant element of the Arab [leaders'] statement," he said.

But Powell also warned that the way ahead is full of pitfalls and unknowns. As he put it: "There are many obstacles along the way, there are many curves, there are many hills, there are many valleys."

Analysts say one of the biggest unknowns is to what extent the five Arab leaders who met with Bush yesterday will or can make the difficult political decisions necessary to help achieve the goals he outlined.

RFE/RL regional expert Kathleen Ridolfo says a major challenge for all five Arab leaders is to overcome their distrust of Sharon. They and other Arab leaders have long regarded Sharon as a man determined to expand the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, and they have difficulty viewing him as a peace partner.

"Ariel Sharon is not unfamiliar to Arab leaders. He served in the Israeli military during the 1948 war and subsequently served in the 1967 and 1973 wars with the Arab states," Ridolfo said. "He also served as defense minister in the early 1980s when Israel was battling the PLO, which was based in Lebanon at the time."

She continues: "Long an advocate of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, his election as prime minister in 2001 was seen by many to signify the death of the Oslo accords. That being said, the Arab states have signed on in support of the U.S.-led initiative in an attempt to bring some kind of stabilization to the region."

Arab leaders have seen their own initiatives go nowhere over the past two years, including a Saudi suggestion that Arab states might recognize Israel in exchange for a regional peace settlement.

Many Arab leaders are also uncomfortable with Sharon's sidelining of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who did not attend the summit. Bush has refused to have any contact with Arafat for nearly a year, but Arab heads of state and many European governments continue to treat him as the leader of the Palestinian people.

Some Arab leaders may also face domestic difficulties in assuring a cut-off of funding for terrorist groups. While many Arab leaders have declared Al-Qaeda an international terrorist group, they also have traditionally regarded Palestinian Islamic groups and the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah as liberation groups fighting to regain Palestinian territory.

For Arab leaders to cut off terrorism financing, they will have to implement tough measures that could prove unpopular with domestic public opinion, which is hostile to Israel and often to the United States, as its principle ally.

Those steps will have to include introducing tougher monitoring and perhaps closure of some Islamic charitable groups -- through which funding for militant groups is often channeled. They also will have to include introducing greater transparency into regional banking and money-transfer procedures.

Given these difficulties, judging the success of yesterday's summit may only be possible months from now, when Arab leaders have returned home and had a chance to confront the challenges Bush gave them.

Top U.S. diplomat Powell sought to put the meeting in just such perspective when he said on his way to Sharm al-Sheikh that the summit would not be an end in itself but a prelude to long and difficult steps ahead.

He told reporters that "it isn't enough to have an exchange, a statement, some words with no action of the parties."

He said: "The road map calls for action...So I'm expecting this [summit] to be a prelude to action."