WASHINGTON — In 1998, when George W. Bush was still governor of Texas, he took an unforgettable helicopter tour of the West Bank with Ariel Sharon, Israel's foreign minister at the time.
The Texan was struck by the tiny distance between Israel's population centers and the enemy lines of the 1967 war lines the Arab world would like Israel to retreat to in any Palestinian peace deal.
"The general said that before the Six Day War, Israel was only nine miles wide at its narrowest point," Mr. Bush later recalled. "In Texas, some of our driveways are longer than that."
This week, Mr. Sharon, now Israel's prime minister, traveled a far shorter White House driveway for a face-to-face with his former touring companion a man who likely appreciates the import of that helicopter ride even more than he did four years ago.
One of six leaders from the region to visit Mr. Bush in three weeks, Sharon's meeting illustrates a revolving-door diplomacy in which the president has become more personally involved with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis than with almost any other foreign-policy issue in his presidency.
While up-close politics has its limits Bill Clinton's incessant intervention couldn't bridge the gulf in this dispute analysts say it's a critical, if risky, component of American leadership in the Mideast.
"Within the Arab world especially, personal diplomacy is of supreme importance," says Raymond Tanter, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He points out that while the common value of democracy is the glue that holds U.S. and Israel together, that's not the case with the Arab countries. "These rulers actually rule," he says, making personal relations between Bush and leaders of the Arab world all the more important.
Not unlike most presidents, Bush puts a premium on good personal relations with other leaders. On the day before his first trip to Europe last year, for instance, he called in Senate Foreign Relations chairman Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) for a briefing not on policy, but on the personalities of the leaders he was about to meet.
Bush has forged an intimate relationship with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a personal warmth is developing between this president and Russia's Vladimir Putin. However, relations with Mideast leaders, by contrast, are complicated by the complexity of the Arab-Israeli problem.
Still, analysts say, after 13 visits with Arab heads of state about half of them just this year and five meetings with Sharon, the nature of the president's personal diplomacy with these leaders is beginning to take shape.
Let's be frank, says Israel expert Bernard Reich, in speaking about the chemistry between Bush and Sharon: "As individuals, they really have nothing in common."
They come from different generations and different backgrounds but they share a similar appreciation of direct and frank communication. At their first meeting last year, they promised each other "no surprises." More importantly, the context of the two countries' relationship be it historical, congressional, or democratic serves to help the leaders through their many disagreements.
"They speak the same language. They read the same Bible. They think about the world in a very similar way," says Mr. Reich, a professor at George Washington University.
The most likely to understand Bush's informal and down-to-earth Texas style of hospitality, the young Jordanian king is perhaps the most Americanized of the Mideast heads of state. He is said to speak English better than Arabic, likes American television, and has been supportive of the president's war on terrorism and his "axis of evil" concept. Like Bush, he is a son of a national leader.
His meeting with Bush today is his second this year. Whereas Sharon's visit was confined strictly to business, the president and the king will take time to dine together.
Analysts say the import of King Abdullah's role is not so much as a conduit to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but as an ear to the so-called Arab street and as a leader whose country has signed a peace treaty with Israel.
Last year, Saudi Arabia's prince snubbed Bush, refusing to come to Washington while on a trip to Canada. Two weeks ago, he was a "special" guest at the Bush ranch in Crawford. The two leaders broke brownies together and also took a bumpy tour in the presidential pick-up, where they spotted a wild turkey.
Although the president insisted he had "forged a personal bond of friendship" with Abdullah, observers note the ties are really just beginning to develop, and they are helped greatly by the friendship between the president's father and the crown prince, as well as their common interest in the oil business.
This relationship is more formal than most. Bush grumbled to an aide that he had to wear a suit during Abdullah's ranch visit. But as the keeper of Islam's most holy shrines, and the author of an Arab-Israeli peace plan now adopted by the Arab League, the crown prince has become the key Arab player for the White House. Indeed, the Saudis were instrumental in the deal that freed Mr. Arafat from his compound in Ramallah.
Interestingly, the Egyptian president was not on the most recent invite list to Washington, perhaps because he met with Bush in March. At that time, he urged Bush to get more involved in the Mideast crisis and was rebuffed.
Analysts say the White House needs to be more attentive of Mubarak, who has expressed anger and frustration with the administration's inability or unwillingness to exert more pressure on Sharon. He's also dismayed to see the Saudi crown prince displace him as the new Washington favorite for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.
"He's quite piqued at having been upstaged by the crown prince as the lead player in Arab diplomacy," says Michael Hudson, an Arab expert at Georgetown University here.
Missing from all of these personal talks with the president, of course, is Yasser Arafat. Bush himself still refuses to meet with him, saying the Palestinian leader has not earned his trust.