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Bush only at starting point on his road map

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WASHINGTON — President Bush will have to remain deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process well beyond this week's summits with Arab and Israeli leaders if he hopes to end the Middle East's most intractable conflict, U.S. officials and analysts say.

"The lack of trust between both parties makes it impossible for them to get together without having a fair broker and interlocutor such as the U.S., and specifically the president," asserted Karim Kawar, Jordan's ambassador to the United States, in a speech Thursday in Washington.

Bush's meetings in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on Tuesday, and in Aqaba, Jordan, on Wednesday, offer the best hope of movement toward ending Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed that has claimed more than 3,200 lives, mostly Palestinians, since September 2001.

In Egypt, Bush is to meet with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. In Jordan, he'll talk with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

By going to Arab countries as he makes his deepest foray into Middle East peacemaking, Bush could begin cooling the anti-U.S. rage that fuels sympathy for al-Qaida and makes it harder for governments to cooperate in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"The fact that he is going to them is extremely important in cultural terms," noted Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy institute. "The biggest single reason for anti-Americanism is the view that the U.S. is not even-handed."

The president is reviled across the Islamic world as anti-Muslim for invading Iraq and Afghanistan to overthrow tyrannical regimes, while seemingly abiding Israel's occupation and Jewish settlement expansion in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

"There is an issue of enduring grievance in the Arab world," said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East peace envoy. "Even if you don't solve (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) it's important to make it look like you're making the effort."

This week's summits are only the start of an arduous process in which the Israelis and Palestinians will have to make reciprocal, progressively more painful concessions under a plan known as the road map.

The plan, drafted by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, envisions an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories by 2005.

Implementing the road map's final phase will be the most difficult part. That requires resolving disputes over the status of Jerusalem, claimed by the Israelis and Palestinians as their capital; the Jewish settlements; the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel; and the borders of the independent Palestinian state.

It will be up to Bush, wielding all the prestige and power of his office, to ensure that the Palestinians and Israelis make the necessary concessions.

Without his sustained personal involvement, a commitment Bush has not made in the past, the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative is likely to die like its predecessors.

"He needs to convey the clear impression . . . that he is watching events, and he is prepared to intervene personally when it is required," said Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who is an adviser to the Palestinian Authority.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator who heads the nonprofit conflict-resolution group Seeds of Peace, said Bush should appoint a full-time negotiating team or envoy.

Bush insists he will prove at the summits that he is ready to do whatever he must to win implementation of the road map.

"The first thing I want to do is make very clear to the leaders in the neighborhood that I am intent upon working toward a two-state solution in the Middle East — two states, Israel and Palestine — living side-by-side in peace," he said in an interview Thursday with Egypt's Nile TV. "I want them to look me in the eye so they can see that I am determined to work to make this happen."

In an early sign of greater U.S involvement, Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday said a group of American officials would be sent to the region to give a "24-7 presence to help the two sides talk to one another" and help recreate the Palestinian security services that Israel destroyed. They would not be a negotiating team, he said.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while some top foreign policy aides believe Bush is determined to jump-start the peace process, they wonder whether he will continue to devote the time and intensity required.

Other experts raised the same question. They pointed out that Bush only began pushing the road map as a favor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sought to defuse domestic criticism of his participation in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Numerous other issues will also compete for the president's time, including the problem-plagued U.S. occupation of Iraq, the moribund U.S. economy and his 2004 re-election campaign.

Implementing the first steps of the road map will be hard enough.

The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, has begun reforming the corruption-ridden Palestinian Authority as required in the preliminary phase of the plan.

But he must now begin a crackdown on Palestinian terrorist groups with security forces that barely function. Abbas also must fend off a challenge to his authority by Palestinian President Yassir Arafat, whom the United States and Israel have frozen out of the peace process. Arafat is popular among the 3.3 million Gaza and West Bank Palestinians.

Sharon will have to refrain from harsh responses to any new terrorist attacks aimed at derailing the peace process. The road map calls on the Israeli government to refrain from such actions as demolition of Palestinian homes and attacks on civilians.

Sharon also will have to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories and dismantle those built since March 2001.

These are steps the former army general previously has refused to take.