After engaging in the usual diplomatic niceties at the start of today's US-Arab summit, President Bush will get down to the business of persuading Arab allies to get on board Washington's new peace and reform train.
Meeting at an ultramodern resort here on the Red Sea, Mr. Bush will press Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain to find new ways to cut financial aid to "terrorist" groups that, he argues, aim to undermine the US and European-backed road map for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In return, Bush will ask Arab leaders for their views on how to proceed - and at what speed.
Bush arrives fresh from a military victory in Iraq, bolstered by new Saudi empathy for the war on terror and Arab recognition that the president is now personally involved in the Mideast peace effort. As a result, he is likely to find ready ears and tactful nods as he embarks upon what Arab analysts are calling "the first leg of Mr. Bush's Mideast Odyssey."
Yet behind the smiles in Sharm El-Sheikh are longstanding political tensions that many Arabs believe have been exacerbated by Bush's recent and aggressive posturing in the region.
"Arab leaders are not opposing President George Bush and his bold plans for the region," says Ahmed Abulkheir, an Egyptian international-affairs consultant and former ambassador. He says Arab leaders won't back Bush against a wall to vent misgivings about the war or even their steadfast belief that Israeli military tactics are the root cause of Islamic terror. "They know Mr. Bush is coming with a gun in his hand, and they know what happened in Iraq, even though they don't like it."
Still, Arab leaders are likely to caution Bush to ease his aggressive posturing towards Islamic states like Iran and Syria and lean heavily on a man many of them still consider the greatest obstacle to peace: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
With the President of Egypt and the monarchs of Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia listening, analysts say Bush will be making his pleas to a small and elite Arab "coalition of the willing" that he can use to pressure Palestinian leaders to crack down on terror in their own backyard. Notably absent from the talks will be leaders from states like Syria and Libya.
But even for so-called "Arab moderates" at Sharm El-Sheikh, doubts and fears about what the US president really plans to do in the region have increased dramatically in the wake of the war in Iraq, says Mr. Abulkheir. "The sense is that Mr. Bush will use his guns when he is opposed," he says.
The Bush administration appears ready to acknowledge, however, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian process - or at least actively engaging in it - is one way of dispelling these Arab doubts.
In an interview with CNN International in Manila Sunday, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that moving ahead with the road map for peace in the Middle East could go a long way toward dispelling false notions of "injustice" in US foreign policy and that "we are one sided in our dealings."
Even normally pessimistic Arab analysts now say there is a new mood of cautious optimism - a sense that Bush may finally be waking up to the realization that by addressing the violence in Israel and Palestine, he may be taking the bull by the horns.
"We see and believe Israeli aggression continuing daily in the West Bank," says Abulkheir. "This is what has led the region to terror, and by making peace you can still remove the reasons for terror. …