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MIDEAST SUMMIT | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush Flying High in Air Force One

Returning home, an 'enthusiastic' president describes his approach to peacemaking.

June 05, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE -- President Bush entered the cabin with a bounce and a smile, as if he had just passed a difficult test. And he had.

The president, once derided as a foreign policy novice, had just done what many doubted he could do, bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together to restart the violence-stalled peace process in the Middle East.

Bush was ebullient with success, but immediately adopted the measured tones of diplomacy when asked whether he considered this week's twin summits in Egypt and Jordan a "great success."

"First of all, it's progress," Bush said in a nearly hourlong session with reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. "Great success is when there are two states, living side by side in peace."

Bush is often wary with the press, fearing he is easily misunderstood by reporters, aides say. That he was willing to speak so long and so candidly of his thinking is a sign that he feels new self-confidence as a statesman.

The invitation to come to his forward rooms for the rare interview was Bush's first extended session with White House reporters aboard Air Force One since he took office. He usually stays in the front with aides.

Sitting at the head of a small conference table, Bush crunched the ice from his Diet Coke as he reviewed the events of the last few days -- a summit in Egypt with Arab leaders on Tuesday, and a three-way summit Wednesday with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. At both events, Bush said, he deliberately maneuvered the leaders into informal, unscheduled meetings to avoid speech-making and used his plain-spoken style of diplomacy to challenge them to make peace.

"I believe I can do so in a way that's not offensive to them ... ," he said. "And I hope they sense my sense of optimism. I mean, I'm an enthusiastic person when I believe that something is possible. I believe peace is possible."

Earlier in the day at the Jordanian resort of Aqaba, Bush drew the prime ministers outside under a palm tree for 40 minutes of private conversation at a royal palace outside the port city. The previous day in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, Bush had engineered a similar, 90-minute session between Arab leaders, assisted only by translators.

"This was my chance to go around the table and look [each one] in the eye and say, 'I'm here to make it happen, but I need your help,' " Bush said.

With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Bush said, the session under the palm trees was his attempt to take the measure of the men's relationship.

"What I wanted to do was to observe the interplay between the two -- did they have the capacity to relax in each other's presence, for starters," Bush said. "And I felt they did. In other words ... the body language was positive. There wasn't a lot of hostility or suspicion."

Bush said his direct style and occasional colloquialisms caused some confusion at times -- for instance, when he told the two leaders he was appointing a coordinator to "ride herd" on their progress.

"I don't know if anybody understood the meaning," Bush said, chuckling. "It's a little informal in diplomatic terms. I said, we're going to put a guy on the ground to ride herd on the process. [I could] see them all scratching their heads."

In the end, the president said, the summit ended with "amazing" statements by the two leaders, read out with the Gulf of Aqaba behind them, the Israeli resort of Eilat visible across the water in front of them.

"I think when you analyze the statements, you'll find them to be historic ... ," Bush said. "Amazing things were said.

"The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority talked about the suffering of Jewish people. It's a strong statement. The prime minister of Israel talked about a Palestinian state which was free. The statements were strong."

Bush described himself as cautious and aware of the difficulties ahead.

"I'm the master of low expectations," he said. "I think we accomplished what I hoped we would accomplish, but I don't think we necessarily exceeded expectations.

"I think 'met expectations' is a better way to put it."

Bush's evident pride in his Mideast diplomacy is noteworthy for a president who deliberately avoided the region for his first 17 months in office. At the time, administration officials suggested that previous presidents, especially Clinton, had invested too much and achieved too little.

But in a turnaround he credits to the legacy of the Sept. 11 attacks and growing "battle fatigue" on both sides, the president has taken on the intractable conflict as a personal mission.

The Aqaba summit came on day six of a seven-day presidential tour of Europe and the Middle East, but despite crossing time zones and enduring a chain of flights and motorcades, the president appeared animated, not fatigued.

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