For Bush, a bigger personal role in Mideast

His interactions with Sharon and Abdullah show a deeper diplomatic involvement.

President Bush, a reluctant diplomat, now seems to be fully engaging the personal prestige of his office in the Middle East crisis.

After directly receiving Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's blunt appraisal of faltering American credibility in the Arab region and facing the increasingly apparent fact that the president holds sway where his envoys don't, Bush's engagement seems irreversible.

The president may not be ready – any more than the conditions on the ground are – for personal diplomacy on the level of Presidents Carter and Clinton. But Bush plans to receive Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House this week, at a time when movement is expected on various fronts, from possible resolution of the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to anticipated announcement of a ministerial peace conference on Mideast peace.

Bush has certainly learned something about the power – and limits – of the presidency. The days ahead will offer new glimpses of how Bush intends to put what he has learned to work.

On the one hand, Bush's phone call to Sharon was able to accomplish what Secretary of State Colin Powell couldn't during his mission to the Mideast earlier this month. Mr. Powell apparently took the idea for freeing Arafat from the Israeli seige to Sharon – but it took the president – and perhaps additional time – to win Israel's assent.

The objective of such a deployment of presidential prestige is two-fold: to advance – at a time that seems ripe – toward settlement of a conflict that has bedeviled the world for too many decades, but also to clear a path for progress on other top US concerns. Those include continued progress in the war on terrorism – including problems of Iraq and the US image in the Arab and Muslim worlds – and to secure global energy supplies.

"The president now believes that the road to Baghdad goes through Jerusalem," says Raymond Tanter, a former official with the National Security Council under Presidents Reagan and Bush (the father).

"The thinking is now, that the way you get your ducks in a row for regime change in Iraq is to calm the Arab street that is enflamed over the Arab-Israeli conflict," he says.

Bush's priority, Mr. Tanter says, "absolutely" remains the war on terrorism and tackling the presence of weapons of mass destruction in rogue hands. The road has detoured through the Mideast conflict, but the destination hasn't changed.

But the way the Bush administration is orchestrating this new level of presidential diplomacy also suggests a difference from the Clinton model, especially in the level to which other international players are being consulted and included in US efforts. Unlike the "This is how we do it" Clinton approach that left the Europeans and others on the sidelines as distractions, the Bush administration appears to be set on including others down the line.

Bush called Mr. Sharon Saturday to seal a deal for freeing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the two-room confinement he's endured for most of April.

But as part of the American-brokered agreement, British officers will join US marshals – probably from the CIA – to guard the six Palestinians Israel wants for the killing of a cabinet minister. The US has been working with European, Arab, Russian, and UN officials on the international conference idea.

And Bush's engagement was at least in part prompted by the visit to the president's Texas ranch of Prince Abdullah who warned that Arab support for the US would only deteriorate without a more balanced US approach between the Israelis and Palestinians.

For the US, the Mideast conundrum involves "concentric rings" of players, Mr. Tanter says, with the "outer ring" including the European Union, Russia, and the UN, another ring including the Arab League and moderate Arab states, and the "inner ring" occupied by Israelis and Palestinians.

One problem not recognized under Clinton was that Arab nations weren't sufficiently engaged to give Arafat assurance his acceptance of conditions would be backed by key Arab leaders.

"The Bush administration has worked those outer rings harder," Tanter says. "That doesn't guarantee the Bush approach will work, but it does mean that Arafat especially has the backing he needs to make concessions."

Noting that "momentum is the magic of diplomacy," Tanter says he expects announcements to continue in coming days to show that the administration is on top of the crisis and keeping things moving. One first advance is likely to be resolution of the Bethlehem standoff, perhaps followed by announcement of a high-level meeting to set the stage for an international peace conference.

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