THE US President, George Bush, yesterday won the public backing of moderate Arab states for an end to terror as he said Israel must "deal" with its settlements in Palestinian territory.
Mr Bush launched the most ambitious US Middle East peace mission in two years at a summit with Arab leaders to build momentum for the "road map" to peace.
As the US dangled the prospect of sending its own teams to monitor what is meant to be a step-by-step process to a Middle East peace settlement, the NATO secretary-general, Lord Robertson, yesterday hinted that NATO troops could also play a role.
At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Madrid, he said the organisation "should not rule itself out of the equation", though senior officials insisted there were no concrete plans for such a deployment.
On the eve of the summit that brings together Mr Bush, the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, Israel yesterday released about 100 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture.
They included Ahmad Jbarah, a white-haired 67-year-old once dubbed the "fridge-bomber", jailed for a 1975 bombing attack which killed 13 people in Jerusalem. He is now celebrated by Palestinians as the man who has served the longest term inside Israeli prisons.
While Palestinian spokesmen predictably dismissed the releases as cosmetic, rather than a major concession - with thousands more Palestinians still serving long sentences - Mr Bush led efforts yesterday to give the appearance of an unstoppable drive to peace.
"We have made progress on a broad agenda," he said after the summit hosted by Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
"We are determined to keep moving forward."
In an outdoor address, with the sea behind him and Mr Mubarak by his side, Mr Bush hailed a pledge by five Arab leaders to choke off funding for terror groups, and said if all sides met their obligations, progress could be made to Palestinian statehood and a secure Israel.
Amid tight security, Mr Bush met Mr Mubarak before they joined leaders of broadly pro-western countries: Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Bahrain’s King Hamad, along with Mr Abbas, the Palestinian leader, making his debut on the international stage.
Syria and Lebanon, two front-line Arab states that have yet to make peace with Israel, were absent.
Mr Mubarak read a statement from the five countries backing the road map. "We will use the full force of the law to stop funds getting to illegal organisations including terrorist groups," it promised.
Mr Bush said before the talks that Israel had to deal with Jewish settlements. "Israel must make sure there is a continuous territory that the Palestinians can call home," he said.
US hopes for progress have been buoyed by signs Mr Sharon is to announce plans to uproot some settler "outposts", though it is unclear how many.
The international community considers the settlements illegal, although Israel disputes this.
A Sharon aide said Mr Bush’s remarks were no surprise. "All this will be discussed at tomorrow’s meeting," he said.
Jbarah had been listed for release before. But yesterday the Palestinian who has spent 28 of his 67 years behind bars was being treated to a hero’s return.
Jbarah was convicted for his part in detonating an explosives-laden refrigerator that killed 13 Israelis and wounded 70 other people on a crowded pavement in Jerusalem’s Zion Square on 4 July, 1975.
"I cannot believe my eyes," exclaimed his tearful wife, Baheyyeh, as sons, daughters and grandsons thronged around him under the watchful eye of Israeli troops at a check point outside the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Well-wishers hoisted Jbarah, better known by his nom de guerre Abu al-Sukkar, on their shoulders and scouts beat drums to salute him.
Jbarah told one grandson as he kissed him on the cheek: "You have grown up, my sweetheart, you have grown up."
He added: "We are not murderers or criminals. We are peace seekers. We want our freedom back." He urged Israel to make peace.
Jbarah was later driven to the Ramallah compound of the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat - the man whose influence over Palestinian politics the US has been determined to break. He urged Israel to free all of the thousands of Palestinians jailed as alleged militants. "We want to close this file," he said, linking hands with Mr Arafat.