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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
Analysis: Bush seeks Arab backing

Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Sharm el-Sheikh

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak welcomes US counterpart George W Bush to Sharm el-Sheikh
Mr Bush is looking for his allies to strongly endorse his roadmap
George W Bush is kicking off his first visit to the Middle East by meeting four of his Arab allies.

The leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been invited for a brief encounter with the United States president at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Also invited is new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Bush is assuming the role of peacemaker after leading a war that was deeply unpopular in the region.

He is looking for his Arab friends to strongly endorse his Middle East peace plan, the roadmap. But what he has to offer falls far short of Arab demands for American re-engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And while the summit should give the Arabs the opportunity for "frank discussions" with the US president - in the words of one Egyptian paper - they can expect to have little influence on his policy in the new Middle East.

Uninvited

After the 1991 Gulf War, Mr Bush's father launched a peace process based on international legitimacy that included Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

His son has launched an essentially bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace plan based on increasingly unquestioned acceptance of a new American "strategic reality" in the region.

US soldiers put a Stars and Stripes over a Saddam statue in Baghdad
The US may take even less heed of Arab opinion after the Iraq outcome

Although the much-vaunted roadmap gives cursory mention to Syria and Lebanon, neither country was invited.

And although it makes reference to a groundbreaking 2002 Arab initiative that offers Israel full regional peace for full withdrawal from lands it occupied in 1967, it focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The roadmap also retains what many Arabs view as the worst attributes of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, specifically a security-driven process that requires the occupied to protect the occupier.

Washington would argue that it has to be realistic after two and a half years of violence and start with small painstaking steps to rebuild confidence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bitter experience

Under the circumstances, America's Arab friends are making the most of what they can get.

They will demand that the US push Israel to implement the roadmap as written, and prevent Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from renegotiating it according to a list of 14 reservations.

Ariel Sharon
The Arabs want to prevent Ariel Sharon re-drawing the roadmap

They will also urge Mr Bush to maintain high-level American involvement in the process.

"There is a realisation on the Arab side that Washington will put no pressure on Ariel Sharon to live up to the real requirements of peace," said a source quoted by the Egyptian al-Ahram newspaper.

"But there is also an understanding that Washington deems it in its interest for things to move at least a little and this is what we will seek to capitalise on."

That sense of powerlessness comes from bitter experience - this American administration took little stock of Arab opinion in the lead up to its war with Iraq.

Some observers say it is even less likely to do so now that it has emerged from the conflict triumphant.

Sidelined

Instead, Washington has indicated it expects its allies to line up to a new American order based on the logic of military might, and that those who do not can expect to be punished.

Already Syria has faced American threats and heavy-handed pressure for allegedly harbouring fugitives from the Iraq regime, some would say for pursuing an independent foreign policy.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas
The US is using the summit to boost Mahmoud Abbas' standing

Recently, similarly bellicose statements have been heard in Washington against Iran, a non-Arab but regional heavyweight.

And the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, is clearly not on the winning team.

Officials say one of the reasons for the Arab summit is to boost Mr Abbas as the top Palestinian representative, crowning Israeli-American attempts to sideline Mr Arafat.

Arab people will almost certainly see this summit as another demonstration of their leaders' impotence.

But Arab leaders have more to fear than demonstrations from the "Arab street".

They have to worry about discontent that feeds sympathy and recruits members for al-Qaeda and they have only to look at the recent suicide bombings in Morocco and Saudi Arabia to see that the Islamic terror network targets Arab regimes.

After the Saudi bombings a statement attributed to al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, condemned the Arab states that had "collaborated" with the Americans during the war against Iraq.

He directed the brunt of his criticism at four Arab countries - the four the Americans have invited to Sharm el-Sheikh.


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