In Mideast peace process, how big a role will Bush play?

Bush appears to be playing down the importance of the US in the process, but some experts see a need for an active outside arbiter.

After President Bush's high-profile speech Tuesday at the Annapolis meeting on Middle East peace and Wednesday's scheduled Rose Garden appearance with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, there are still questions about just how involved the United States will be in the relaunched negotiations.

How intense a role will Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has logged more than 100,000 miles this year addressing the conflict, now play?

Will the administration name a special envoy to monitor progress in specific areas?

At what point – if ever – will the Bush administration put on the table the outlines of a final accord, the kind of role the US has played before, but which the US under Mr. Bush has so far rejected?

And will the president engage in further personal diplomacy, which many observers say will be crucial for progress but which Bush has eschewed?

The answers could well determine just how far the negotiations go, some experts say, even as they see seeds of hope in what the US has done this week.

"So far, so good," says Arthur Hughes, a former director general for the multi­national force for Egypt-Israel peacekeeping who is now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. "The president has put his personal imprimatur on this process and committed to some involvement."

The formal commitment of the two sides to start negotiations next month and to keep to a rigorous schedule – all under the eye of the US, as Bush said – is also promising, Mr. Hughes says.

But he adds that glaring "mixed signals" sent out by the administration are feeding doubts about the US commitment. As one example, he notes that while Bush committed the US to "facilitating" the way forward, other senior administration officials have been busy "promoting the idea that it is a mistake for the US to propose anything" to the two sides in the way of specific steps and final parameters.

Indeed, the Bush administration appears to be playing down the importance of the US role, when past experience suggests the two sides need an outside arbiter pushing them along, some analysts say. "If history serves as a guide, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will not go anywhere without US presidential intervention," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

In some ways, the wording of the joint statement reached by the Israelis and Palestinians suggests less involvement for the US than words Bush previously used.

In the document, Bush said the US will "monitor and judge" the fulfillment of commitments for both parties to the "road map" – the 2003 document that spelled out steps the sides would take for getting final-status talks on track. When Bush announced the road map in 2003, he said the US, in addition to monitoring and judging progress, was charged with "helping the parties to move towards peace."

Hughes of the Middle East Institute says it's probably "wise" of the administration not to use the same wording for this process, since the commitment to help "the parties to move towards peace" was never really carried out and the road map fell into dormancy.

Hughes cites two things he'll be watching for in the coming weeks to gauge US involvement: whether an envoy, especially one of stature and access to Bush, is named to oversee the "monitoring" of the progress, and whether a "structure" is set up for the US to follow the parties' progress on specific issues.

But such steps may matter little if the US at the highest levels is not committed to intervening when the negotiating road inevitably gets rough, others say.

"You can talk about the two sides having to want to do this for themselves, but as soon as there's a dispute, that's when we'll see how much and in what way the administration really intends to engage," says Charles Dunbar, a former US ambassador to various postings in the region who is now a Middle East expert at Boston University.

Others note that the commitment of the US to monitoring and judging seems to play down the role of the Quartet of powers – the US, Russia, the European Union, and the UN – in the relaunched process. Mr. Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College says he would have liked to see mention of the UN resolutions that set a basis for the international requirements to be fulfilled in any settlement.

The focus on the US, Mr. Dunbar says, recognizes the "reality" that it is the "essential power" that both sides turn to to keep the process moving. But that means the US will have to be engaged "beyond pretty words," he says, if the expectations of Annapolis are to be fulfilled.

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