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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 00:39 GMT 01:39 UK
Bush's change of direction

By Jon Leyne
BBC State Department correspondent

President George W Bush is about to launch into the sort of Middle East peacemaking he had been determined to avoid.

President Bush
Bush hopes he can point the way to peace

After watching the failure of his predecessor Bill Clinton's peace efforts, Mr Bush made it clear early in his term that he had better uses for his time.

His Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has achieved something of a record for his lack of travel to the region.

Now all that is about to change, and the venue will be the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, no less, the site of many of Mr Clinton's ill-fated talks.

That's where Mr Bush will meet a series of Arab leaders next week, before travelling on to the Jordanian port of Aqaba to host a summit between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.

Members of the Bush administration keep talking about what a promising moment for peace this is.

The suggestion is that the departure of Saddam Hussein, and the arrival of a new Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, has changed everything.

Personal interest

It is hard to see precisely how Saddam Hussein was preventing the Israelis and Palestinians from making peace.

As for Abu Mazen, even the Americans admit privately he is hardly a promising candidate to wrestle power from Yasser Arafat.

What has really changed is President Bush himself.

Suddenly he is taking a strong personal interest in the peace process, and putting his own personal political capital on the line.

But what motivates him is still a bit of a mystery.

On the face of it, the president is flying in the face of the political logic.

Mr Bush's core supporters, the Christian Right and hardline Republicans, are fervent supporters of the State of Israel.

Mr Bush's political guru Karl Rove is dedicated to winning a larger share of the Jewish vote than the roughly 10% secured by the Republicans in the 2000 election.

And until now, President Bush has been most reluctant to get into a row with the Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon.

Scope for manoeuvre.

After all, just such a confrontation in the early nineties helped ease President Bush, the elder, from power.

And yet, and yet, and yet...

After the war in Iraq, Mr Bush's backing from the core of the Republican party is rock solid.

To the friends of Israel, Mr Bush can now say, I stood by you during the hard times - now trust me as I work for peace.

It is a basis that gives him a lot of room for manoeuvre.

Is the peace process known as the roadmap the way forward?

At the moment it seems the only game in town, but the commitment of Mr Bush and Mr Sharon to this "vision" is open to question.

Perhaps it is just a convenient peg on which to hang their hats.

What both leaders would really like is for a return of calm.

Mr Sharon needs it to help restore the sickly Israeli economy.

Mr Bush would love it as part of the backdrop for his re-election bid next year.

Even for the Palestinians there are significant benefits.

The roadmap calls for a freeze of Jewish settlement activity and the removal of illegal outposts in the first phase of its implementation.

Those are goals the Palestinians did not win even in the Oslo peace process.

Their achievement would be a significant feather in the cap for Abu Mazen, something with which he could persuade the Palestinians peace really is worth a chance.

Ariel Sharon has always said his aim is what he calls a long term interim agreement with the Palestinians.

With no new settlement activity, that's something, perhaps, the Palestinians could live with.

After all, they could say, at least our situation is not getting any worse.

As for the Roadmap's goal of a Palestinian State in 2005, that still sounds a bit of a dream.

But then, say the optimists, if the violence ends, surely anything is possible.

The BBC's James Reynolds reports from Jerusalem
"There has generally been a positive reaction"

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