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Saturday, 6 April, 2002, 01:08 GMT 02:08 UK
Allies sit down to 'mammoth task'
Laura Bush, George Bush and Tony Blair
Summit will set the direction for the latest peace hopes
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online's political correspondent travelling with the prime minister

Tony Blair and George Bush have kicked off their weekend summit at the US president's Texas ranch by setting themselves a mammoth task.

With the Middle East closer to conflagration than at any time for years, they are attempting to forge new proposals for a ceasefire - and ultimately peace - between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Blair believes he can play a key role, similar to the one he undertook in the wake of 11 September

The crucial meeting comes on the heels of President Bush's apparent about face on the crisis and his plea to both sides that "enough is enough".

And it will be followed by an equally vital visit to the region by US Secretary of State Colin Powell next week.

If that was not task enough, the two men will also discuss the president's apparent determination to widen his war against terrorism to include Iraq.

That is an issue that has the potential to cause Mr Blair serious trouble at home and his critics will be keeping a close eye on any agreement he and the president reach during their meeting.

But it is the Middle East that will inevitably dominate this two-day summit.

Powerful position

After landing at Waco airport, where he was greeted by the president's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Mr Blair was helicoptered to Crawford for a working dinner with the president.

Everyone recognises that George Bush is the only world leader with the clout to actually influence events in the Middle East.

In the end this can only be resolved by political dialogue not military force

Tony Blair
But Mr Blair believes he can play a key role, similar to the one he undertook in the wake of 11 September, by helping build a coalition of global support for the new peace moves.

Before he flew out to Texas, he telephoned French President Jacques Chirac and Russian premier Vladimir Putin to discuss the crisis.

Later today he will also speak to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as part of the campaign to win international support.

But it is this gettogether in the relatively relaxed surroundings of the president's Crawford home that will set the direction for the latest peace hopes.

And there is little doubt that, thanks to his support for America in the wake of 11 September, the prime minister is in a powerful position to influence the president's thinking.

Allies' task

Mr Blair will not be drawn into any criticism of the president's approach to the crisis, brushing aside claims Mr Bush sat on his hands for far too long.

He is also careful not to signal any support for the notion that Israel's action against Yasser Arafat is part of the global war against terrorism.

But it is also clear that he expects the president to follow through and keep piling the pressure onto both sides - and most significantly for him, Israel - to end the bloodshed.

Speaking on his plane en route to America, the prime minister set out the task ahead.

'Dialogue the key'

"We will be looking at ideas that can lead to a ceasefire which is the essential precondition so that they get back into a process of political dialogue," he said.

"I think the one thing people understand about the situation is that, whatever the strength of feeling on both sides, in the end this can only be resolved by political dialogue not military force.

"Palestinians must do everything they can to halt the acts of terrorism and suicide bombings - and Israel has to get out of the occupied territories," he said.

There is nothing startlingly new in the goals and the Israelis and Palestinians have attempted to meet them in the past. But they currently look more distant than ever.

Making them a reality is the task now before President Bush and his ally.

See also:

03 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Short 'carpeted' over Iraq
24 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Straw bids to ease Iraq fears
01 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair to press ahead with US trip
12 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Straw outlines Iraq's 'severe threat'
03 Apr 02 | Middle East
US sends mixed signals on Mid-East
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