Arab world eyes new side of Bush

Bush left Qatar for the US Thursday, concluding days of hands-on Mideast mediation. Arabs are now debating his impact.

Many Arabs are reacting favorably to President Bush's Middle East peacemaking foray, expressing optimism about a US-backed peace plan intended to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Following two back-to-back summit meetings with Middle Eastern leaders this week, an editorial in Egypt's government-backed Al Ahram daily said that "hopes are pinned on the US president to achieve peace in the region."

Analysts - particularly in states whose government are friendly with the US, such as Egypt and Jordan - voiced similar views.

"The general sense is that American foreign policy is being 'corrected' toward better accommodation of the opposition [to US policy] coming from the world community and better relations with Arab states," says Mohammed el-Sayed Said, a political scientist at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

The proverbial man in the street, adds Musa Keilani, a Jordanian columnist, now can see that "the US is serious to solve all the issues in the region."

In parts of the region less allied with the US, commentators and analysts sound more skeptical. In the United Arab Emirates, the Al Khaleej daily wrote Thursday that "it is obvious that what the United States now wants after its occupation of Iraq is to ensure Israel's security, and the decapitation of the Palestinian resistance movement is the price the Palestinians will pay for the so-called road map," as the US-backed peace plan is known.

Fouad Mardoud, writing in Tishreen, a government-owned newspaper in Syria, struck a weary tone: "The Middle East has witnessed so many US presidents come and go during the past three decades, but unfortunately, without attaining any of their goals to achieve a just and comprehensive solution to the Arab- Israeli conflict. Israel was always the obstacle, and it will be more likely that this visit will not be exceptional."

Syria and Lebanon, though they remain at war with Israel, were not invited to Bush's meeting with Arab leaders held on June 3 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The US leader secured Arab support for a renewed Middle East peace process, the subject he addressed in earnest with Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian leaders at a June 4 summit held in the Jordanian city of Aqaba.

Mr. Keilani, the Jordanian columnist, argues that Bush's broader policy goals - such as the "war on terror" - will aid in his quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. "Militant groups are not in a position to dictate terms or enjoy the free rein they have had" to disrupt peace initiatives, he says, in part because of the US-led campaign against them.

That campaign, Keilani says, has led the Saudis, Palestinians, and Iranians to cease funding and supporting such groups. Even so, the militant Palestinian group Hamas vowed this week to continue its "resistance" against Israel, language that means further violence. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly planning to meet with the group and another militant organization, Islamic Jihad, this weekend in a bid to obtain a general cease-fire.

Israel took a small step Thursday toward meeting its own road-map obligations. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz conferred with army commanders, reportedly to prepare for dismantling 12 to 15 settlement outposts. There are about 100 of the small settlements scattered across the West Bank. Most consist of only a few families living in trailer homes; the road map explicitly calls for their removal.

But many fear that the steps being taken by both sides are not enough.

Al Ahram's Mr. Said says that among Arabs "there is really a sense of vulnerability and fragility [and a fear] that the process is not strong enough, given the legacy of the past two to three years [of Israeli-Palestinian conflict] and the total distrust of Sharon's government."

He and other commentators stressed the need for Bush to remain engaged if the road map is to succeed. "This is just an initial step and it needs close supervision from the Americans and the other parties involved in this so-called road map to ensure it does not falter before the many obstacles in its way," said Asharq al-Awsat, an Arabic newspaper published in London.

Some analysts see a US leader trying to recast his image after waging a war in the Middle East. "Bush lied to the world to justify his war to occupy Iraq," said Al-Ayyam, a Palestinian newspaper published in Jerusalem. "He now wants to regain his political credibility in Palestine and Israel."

Said was uncertain about Bush's motivations. "There is a noticeable trend toward reversing the image [imparted] by this administration - that it knows only violence," he says.

"Whether it's to reframe the image of Bush as a man of peace or whether having exercised extreme violence [he feels that] now it's time to harvest the results by pursuing diplomatic approaches - whatever the explanation, there is certainly something new coming from the US."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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