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
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