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Arab Leaders Key to Bush's Mideast Effort

In Egypt, the president will urge four heads of state to support the new Palestinian government.

June 03, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — President Bush's success in jump-starting the Middle East peace process may depend more on his summit here today with Arab presidents, kings and princes than on his meeting the next day with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

In their collective hands, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan -- and, to a much lesser degree, Bahrain -- have the wealth, political power and regional clout to help the fragile new Palestinian leadership take the tough steps required to begin implementing the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace, U.S. officials say.

Historically, Arab resistance to negotiating peace and recognizing Israel has been an insurmountable hurdle to a final settlement. President Clinton's last-ditch attempt to mediate a peace treaty at Camp David before leaving office collapsed in part because the same Arab governments were not consulted beforehand and later refused to prod Yasser Arafat to accept it without knowing details of the secret pact, current and former U.S. officials say.

So Bush is deliberately beginning his big-stakes intervention in the long-stalled peace process by calling together Arab allies and appealing for their help to strengthen the 5-week-old rule of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

Reaching out to traditional Arab allies is also important after intervention in Iraq, which left key regional players with emotions ranging from discomfort to anger. The White House prevented deeper opposition by pledging to translate a victory into a new push for peace -- a promise that has now come due.

Before departing France for Egypt on Monday, Bush said that the United States would "put in as much time as necessary to achieve the vision of two states, living side-by-side in peace."

He was also upbeat about the prospects. "I think we'll make some progress. I know we're making progress."

But U.S. strategy is also based on the belief that Abbas, alone, won't be able to establish his legitimacy over his disparate political rivals -- Arafat, two militant Islamic movements, at least three other militias and a handful of secular parties -- much less quell the violence against Israel.

And ending the cycle of violence that has killed hundreds since the Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 is widely considered the prerequisite to convincing Israel's right-wing government to ease its hold on the occupied territories.

"The meeting is important to make sure that the Arab leadership is behind and supportive of the road map and the president's efforts and will play their part in assisting the Palestinian Authority in restoring their security organizations and capacity," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters traveling to Egypt with him Monday.

In a recent Palestinian political survey, Abbas received less than 2% backing among respondents -- compared with 21% for Arafat.

With the help of moderate Arabs, U.S. officials say, the new Palestinian leader will be better positioned to wrest control from the previous chaotic and corruption-riddled government that remains in the background, build a new security force and begin implementing a peace plan designed to produce a provisional Palestinian state by year's end and a final settlement by 2005.

"We're confident and impressed with Abu Mazen's desire to take the tough road ahead, but at the moment he lacks the authority and power to do it. So the key is not with Abu Mazen, but with the Arab world to show they too believe he is the future -- not Arafat," said a senior State Department official.

Bush will ask Arab allies to "stand up with Abu Mazen publicly, politically and financially and in so doing provide him the power to go with the title of leader of the Palestinian people," he added.

The new Palestinian prime minister traveled to Sharm el Sheik, an idyllic Sinai peninsula resort, for the summit -- and the joint photograph with Bush and Arab leaders designed to symbolize that he now officially embodies Palestinian aspirations -- and will go to Jordan for tripartite talks with Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The Bush administration expects the Arab leaders to condemn terrorism against Israel and enact measures to restrict the provision of political or financial support from their own countries to extremists.

Powell said the United States wants the Arab leaders to be "speaking out as strongly as I expect the Palestinians to do in denouncing terror and violence and any support that is given to those who practice terror and violence."

Saudis particularly have been major benefactors of Hamas, one of two Islamic movements responsible for dozens of suicide bombings since September 2000, U.S. officials say. Washington wants the Arabs to instead provide resources to help Palestinian development.

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