How hard will Bush push for Mideast peace?

President's involvement could be vital to progress at a summit expected in June.

In recent decades, no American president has taken office seeking major involvement in the Middle East. Just as invariably, American presidents have been sucked into the issue and, at times, become intimately entwined in negotiations.

President Bush is no exception, as he plans a likely Middle East summit for early next month, following the Israeli government's historic acceptance on Sunday of a Palestinian claim to statehood.

In the American political context, the timing seems off: Typically, since the Nixon era, US presidents have promoted plans for peace in the Middle East during their first two years in office, not as they launched reelection campaigns. Yet other forces are at work - political reforms by the Palestinians, continued violence in and around Israel, and Bush's own post-Iraq-war promises to his allies. Given that, say Mideast analysts, he has little choice. "This is an extraordinarily important time and one that we ought not to let slip away," said Sandy Berger, former national security adviser to President Clinton, at a Monitor breakfast. "This is only going to move forward with leadership from the United States, and ... from the president."

The Israeli Cabinet's decision to back the international Middle East "road map" to peace revived hope for the plan's future. But that approval came with US concessions to Israel, a wrinkle that makes the Palestinians suspicious. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was willing to submit the plan to his Cabinet only after a public US commitment that Israeli concerns would be considered as the plan was being implemented.

The Palestinians have already accepted the road map, which lays out steps by each side that would result in a secure Israel and an independent Palestine by 2005. Secretary of State Colin Powell reassured the Palestinians Friday that there was no intention of amending the plan.

Still, Washington's apparent hand-holding of Mr. Sharon reinforced a central question on the US role: How hard will the Bush administration push Israel in the Sisyphean task of bringing peace?

Still riding high with the US public, and especially his conservative base, after the Iraq victory, Bush has momentum. He showed great skill last week in pushing a tax cut through Congress. But whether he'll go to the mat over the Mideast - a crucial issue for the Christian right, a key Bush constituency highly supportive of Israel - remains to be seen. "Will [Bush officials] be willing to use political capital? That's the question," says Shibley Telhami, a Mideast analyst at the University of Maryland. "They have built a very close relationship with Sharon, and they see that as a political asset. Would they want to jeopardize it?"

Thus far, Professor Telhami says, he is not convinced that the administration is willing to make the Middle East a top priority in the remaining months of this term. But either way, he says, the region is risky for Bush.

"The perception in this administration is that it's a losing issue...," says Telhami. "But I think it's also clear to the president that he has to do something for the sake of US credibility, even with close allies like Britain." Thursday's UN vote, which essentially granted the US control of Iraq, also increases pressure on America over the Arab-Israeli issue, he says.

Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says talk of a Bush visit to the region suggests that the administration understands the gravity of the situation and that such a trip would arouse tremendous expectations. "This is not something they would want to undertake unless there was a plan for some follow through, because this cannot simply be imagery and symbolism," says Mr. Wilcox. "There has to be substance, or the frustration and disappointment will be even greater, and that will reflect negatively on the administration."

If there's one point that most analysts agree on about the US role in the peace process, it's the centrality of the president himself. No lesser figure - not even the secretary of state - will do, as demonstrated by Mr. Powell's recent, unsuccessful trip to the region. Reports indicate that Sharon told his balky Cabinet Sunday that Bush personally assured him he was committed to Israel's security, and that he trusted Bush. The Cabinet approved the road map with no votes to spare.

White House officials had chided former President Clinton for becoming personally involved in Mideast peace negotiations - ultimately without success - at the end of his presidency. Now Bush appears headed in the same direction. Last June 24, he delivered an important speech calling on the Palestinians to reform their politics and fight terrorism and on Israel to take steps to support the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

Now, says Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to the US, Bush must add new "meat" to his proposals. "As we come close to the one-year anniversary of the June 24 speech, he should make a personal, high-level commitment, with concrete steps, asking the parties to clearly address the concerns of the other," Ambassador Fahmy said at a recent lunch forum. "Unless it becomes his road map, his commitment, we simply won't succeed."

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