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With Mideast Summit on Horizon, Bush Prepares to Wade into Fray

May 28, 2003
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President Bush will not be the first president to risk his own time, energy and possibly his legacy trying to forge Arab-Israeli peace.

But as he prepares for a summit with the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Bush — unlike his predecessors — will not be coming into the negotiating sessions to seal the deal, the way President Carter did with the Israeli-Egyptian pact at Camp David in 1978, and as President Clinton tried to do on the Israeli-Palestinian front in 2000.

Instead, Bush is providing the momentum toward Israeli-Palestinian peace from its inception — which may be just the kind of jump-start the “road map” plan needs, analysts say.

Unlike previous presidential engagements, Bush will not be going for broke, keeping foreign leaders secluded until a deal is hammered out, attempting to settle all of the issues between the sides.

The summit Bush is planning with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas — tentatively scheduled for June 5 in Jordan — will be much more concise, likely to last just one day.

The goal won’t be making peace but making it possible to make peace, said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“What Bush is attempting is more modest: conflict management,” Makovsky said. “We’re not trying to solve the core issues but to change the dynamic on the ground, change the war process and give hope to the peace process.”

The president is expected to meet with Sharon and Abbas at the tail end of a European trip, in which he also will visit American troops in Qatar.

Administration sources said a separate summit for Bush and Arab leaders, to push for increased Arab support both of the road map and of Abbas, is expected to be announced within the next few days.

The Israeli-Palestinian summit is being touted as a recognition of the steps the sides have made toward peace in recent weeks. From the Israeli side, that includes Sunday’s Cabinet vote in favor of the plan.

On the Palestinian side, it’s the installation of Abbas as the first Palestinian Authority prime minister, part of an attempt to nudge aside P.A. President Yasser Arafat, whom the United States considers too tied to terrorism.

“What the president is going to signal is an end to the unfortunate chapter of the last two and a half years and the start of a new one,” one State Department official said.

Aaron Miller, a veteran of several State Department efforts to forge Arab-Israeli peace, including the 2000 Camp David summit, says presidential involvement is important because peacemaking depends heavily on personal interaction, and American presidents command respect.

“When we’ve achieved breakthroughs it has almost always been when leaders have been prepared to get involved,” said Miller, now president of Seeds of Peace, a conflict mediation summer camp in Maine.

Even though no peace agreement will emerge from next week’s summit, Miller says it’s still important to show new intensity toward that end.

“The level of personal mistrust is so profound, only the involvement of key decision makers on our side is going to get everyone’s attention and have some follow-up,” he said.

Miller says Bush’s involvement is important to signal a different tone, in contrast to the perception when Bush first took office that the administration was not interested in playing an active role in Mideast peacemaking.

“It’s absolutely critical because it will be perceived, unmistakably, as real seriousness on the part of the president and the administration,” he said.

But Miller warned of one important lesson from the Clinton efforts: It’s best to husband presidential clout, using it only at key times rather than making the president the main mediator. For that, Miller suggests appointing a special envoy.

With Bush’s visit coming at the start of peace talks rather than their conclusion, there has been much less time for preparation than at past summits, and it seems unlikely that all of the parties will be on the same page.

Carter’s meetings at Camp David came after four and a half years of diplomacy, said William Quandt, who served as director of Middle Eastern affairs in Carter’s National Security Council.

Now a professor at the University of Virginia, Quandt warns that an American president must keep the sides focused on his agenda and not allow himself to be drawn into either side’s corner.

“This can easily turn into the United States negotiating with Israel and the United States negotiating with the Arabs, instead of the United States getting both sides to make movements together,” he said.

Quandt also suggested that Bush listen more than he speak, at least in public: His comments could give signals as to which side he favors on certain issues, or show his inexperience in Middle East diplomacy.

“You don’t want to look like the least experienced person there, which you are,” Quandt said. “Don’t get into stuff you don’t understand, especially in public.”

Miller warns that Middle East peacemaking “is not for the faint-hearted,” and that Bush will need to walk a fine line between empathy for the parties and the need to push them to make sacrifices.

“You’ve got to be tough but fair,” he said.

To that end, Quandt suggests that a key component of the summit will be giving Abbas something he can bring back to the Palestinian public, helping him win support away from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“If the judgment is that he’s as good a Palestinian leader as we are going to find, we should find something to give him so that” his first meeting with Bush “is a diplomatic success,” Quandt said. “That is a political need that Bush, as a politician, should understand.”

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