Bush steps into Palestinian-Israeli conflict

US President George W Bush began talks in Egypt on Tuesday with Arab leaders on his first Middle East mission, hoping to win their support for a US-backed "road map" aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

     

    US hopes are high for the summit

    Bush met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before the two leaders joined other Arab leaders, including Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. It will be Bush's first meeting with the Palestinian premier.

    Bush arrived late on Monday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh from the Group of Eight summit in France, expressing optimism, but warned of difficult negotiations ahead.

    The US President is seeking support from Arab leaders for the US-backed “road map” aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. President Mubarak, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, King Adbullah II of Jordan and King Hamad of Bahrain are attending the summit.

    The Palestinians have fully endorsed the blueprint, while the Israelis offered conditional approval with 14 reservations. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has said Israel needs to accept the plan unconditionally for the sake of peace.

    Bush’s high-profile role marks a departure in his presidency, as he has done his best to avoid taking a personal role as Middle East mediator during his two-and-a-half years in office.

    Bush will fly to the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba on Wednesday where he will hold landmark talks with Abbas and his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon.

    Bush’s meeting with Abbas will confirm his standing as Washington's preferred representative for the Palestinian people and underline President Arafat's irrelevance to the peace process. 

    Arab expectations

    Arab leaders, who fear Israel will undermine the peace process after it offered its tentative approval for the plan, will urge Washington to put more pressure on Israeli leaders.

    Washington’s hopes for progress were buoyed after Israel said it would remove "rogue" settlements. Rogue settlements are those considered unlawful by Israeli law but under international law all Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Territories are illegal.

    Washington’s expectations for Abbas are also high after he vowed to crack down on Palestinian resistance groups fighting against Israel’s occupation.

    Abbas is vowed to crackdown on
    Palestinian resistance fighters

    Hopes dim

    Security was high at land and sea entry points when Bush arrived to the summit. Hopes of significant progress decreased as a senior Israeli official said the two sides had failed to reach an understanding on a planned joint statement.

    The Israeli official said the dispute was over the right of return for Palestinian refugees. When Israel offered its approval for the “road map”, it passed a resolution refusing the right of return for refugees to return to their homeland.

    A senior US official travelling with Secretary of State Colin Powell, said Arab leaders would publicly back the plan.

    Powell was less specific. “Whether there are individual or joint statements or how they will communicate their views, we will know soon enough,” said the Secretary of State.

    Powell said they were expecting actions rather than just words. “It isn’t enough just to have statements and words with no action (by) the parties.”


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