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Middle East standing at the crossroads

LIKE scuffling schoolboys hearing the footsteps of their headmaster, Israel and the Palestinians are on their best behaviour as they prepare for the arrival of George Bush, the US president.

Both sides are keen to impress Mr Bush after the unexpected lurch forward in the peace process; many analysts are still scratching their heads after Ariel Sharon’s sudden shift, perhaps best not described as a Damascene conversion.

So did Mr Bush, or Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, lean on Mr Sharon? The Israeli prime minister denies there has been pressure, although he conceded there has been "close co-operation" with Washington - a phrase open to many interpretations.

Senior aides to Mr Sharon, however, concede that since the end of the Iraq war, the Middle East is a very different place.

The post-war reality is that the blank cheque from Mr Bush to Mr Sharon has run out, at least for now. The "close co-operation" may have been a strong hint from Washington that it is payback time for removing the key threat from the Middle East.

After two years of a hands-off approach, Mr Bush has put himself at the centre of the conflict. He has taken into account Britain’s interest in demonstrating progress to Arab countries in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and many in Israel accept that pragmatic compromises with the US are necessary.

One aide, Dov Weisglas, is said to have told cabinet ministers: "Israel did not correctly estimate Bush’s determination or the extent of [his] commitment to Tony Blair after the US victory in Iraq."

However, Dore Gold, a foreign policy adviser, says that "no amount of involvement by the US can substitute for a reality on the ground in which the Palestinians dismantle and disarm terrorist groups".

He added: "The US is leading a global war against terrorism and has an interest in the emergence of a democratic Palestinian entity free of terrorism. The strategic goals of both countries are identical."

Menachem Shalev, the diplomatic correspondent for the Ma’ariv newspaper, says Mr Bush’s decision to become personally involved "changes the dynamics of the peace process and could change the dynamics of the US-Israel relationship".

If the Palestinian Authority (PA) takes vigorous steps against the militants, the US might then pressure Israel over the settlements, he argues. "Sharon is more wary than he was before," Mr Shalev says bluntly.

Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Haaretz newspaper, however, doubts that Mr Bush is willing to pressure Israel. "I’m sceptical he would be willing to twist arms because of domestic politics. Right now I don’t see a majority in the Jewish community or on Capitol Hill for sending Bush the message that he should pursue the road map," he said.

The test will come on Wednesday, when Mr Bush comes to town, Mr Eldar says. "Bush has to use this summit to make clear to everyone what they have to do. If he does not push Sharon in Aqaba, than we are stuck."

Mr Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, puts it succinctly. "All systems are go," for the peace process, he insists.

Maybe so, but there is far to travel.

Mr Sharon’s aides stress they are "serious" about easing Palestinian living conditions, as demanded by Washington. After a summit meeting between Mr Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, the aides say 25,000 Palestinian labourers will be allowed to resume work inside Israel, 15,000 of them from the Gaza Strip and 10,000 from the West Bank. There are also plans for a programme of releasing prisoners, that would for the first time go beyond the setting free of many who were within days of completing their terms.

Nabil Amr, the Palestinian information minister, is also upbeat. Mr Bush’s visit, he says, "can open the file for a political solution in the Middle East. The most important thing is the resumption of the peace process that has been destroyed during the last two years".

Mr Bush is to meet with Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, ending his two-year hands-off policy from the seemingly intractable, century-old conflict. He arrives at a time of ferment in Israeli public opinion, with a poll in the Ma’ariv yesterday showing 62 per cent of Israelis support "ending the occupation" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and 59 per cent support a freeze on building at the Jewish settlements there.

It will be the first major test for the road map. The Israeli press has termed the meeting as Mr Bush’s "sound and light show" because of the image of a peacemaker that he is expected to construct - if only the Israelis and Palestinians will let him.

The road map’s first stage demands the Palestinians halt all violence and act against armed militias, and Israel carry out a limited troop withdrawal and freeze its building at the settlements.

Each side has been demanding the other act first. The process received its unexpected boost last week when Israel’s cabinet gave a qualified endorsement to the road map, while at the same time stressing objections, including that the EU, Russia and UN be denied a monitoring role. Israel considers all three much-less friendly than the US, the first country to recognise it in 1948 and the source of billions of annual dollars in economic and military assistance.

Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen are outbidding each other in praising the cordiality of the Sharon-Abbas meeting. But this has not yielded agreement on an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with the Palestinians saying they first want to achieve a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.They expect to gain Hamas’ agreement for this during the next few days, although a Hamas spokesman, Abdul-Aziz Rantisi, has criticised the PA for accepting the road map, saying, like the 1993 Oslo Agreement, it would yield only misery.

"It is a mistake to enter the lair a second time without knowing how to get out," Mr. Rantisi says.

Mr Powell likens the peace process to a game of kick the can. "The can is in the road now, and we will start moving it down the road, perhaps with little kicks as opposed to a 54-yarder," he says.

"It’s easy to say, why didn’t you solve this all up front? Because you couldn’t. You couldn’t get started.

"So there are difficult issues that are ahead; this is not going to be solved in one day or one week or one month."

And there are many possible pitfalls; one senior Bush administration official admits: "Are there a lot of ways this could go off the rails? Of course."

Both Elliot Abrans, the hawkish head of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council, and William Burns, the assistant Secretary of State, are in the region for meetings in anticipation of Mr Bush’s visit, designed to reassure both the Palestinians that the US is fully engaged in the process and to stress to Israel that the 14 concerns it expressed about the road map would be addressed.

Mr Bush, who places great store by his personal relationship with foreign leaders, has emphasised his commitment to the process. "I want them to look me in the eye so they can see I’m determined to work to make this happen," he says.

In another interview, Mr Bush confirmed: "I am going to hold people accountable for their commitments, and the good news is that Prime Minister Sharon knows that. I have had very straightforward conversations with him.

"I think it’s in Israel’s interests that there be two states living side by side in peace. He, too, has embraced that idea."

However, conservatives in Washington, and some Jewish groups, think these "straightforward conversations" may have gone too far.

They worry that Mr Sharon has moved further towards reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians than is justified by Mr Mazen’s actions thus far, claiming few practical steps have taken place towards dismantling the Palestinian terrorist networks.

One Israeli official, close to Mr Sharon, says: "When Bush needed help this time, he got it, and Sharon understands that the US is going to stand by Israel when it comes to security and this very treacherous road map."

Nonetheless, the administration believes that victory in the Iraq war has given the US the necessary momentum to make a renewed push for peace - just as the first Gulf war created the opportunity for the Madrid conference and subsequently Oslo.

This time, they hope to go further.

 
 
 

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