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Arab Leaders Key to Bush’s Mideast Effort

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Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

“We want to get the money flowing so Abu Mazen can start the irrigation projects. Then, when people see pipes laid and water turned on, they’ll think of Abu Mazen -- and when they see the destruction of the past they’ll think of Arafat. That’s when the transformation of Palestinian society will begin. It’s in a thousand little steps,” said a well-placed U.S. official involved in the process.

To pave the way for Bush’s talks with Sharon and Abbas in Aqaba, Jordan, the United States is hoping for a joint Arab statement today endorsing the peace plan, which was crafted in December by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, and unveiled on April 30.

Just by agreeing to attend the Sinai summit, the four Arab delegations made an important and potentially controversial opening move. It follows Saudi Arabia’s successful bid in March 2002 to get the Arab League to promise recognition of Israel upon completion of a land-for-peace swap. Endorsement of the plan, however, would translate a principle into tangible action.

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Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said Monday that the four Arab governments “strongly support” the plan. “We are on the verge of a new era. We don’t, of course, want to be overoptimistic because we understand there is going to be a lot of hard work,” Muasher said. “This is an attempt to reverse the cycle of violence.”

To oversee implementation of the proposal, the Bush administration is planning to form a coordinating committee. A senior State Department official, John S. Wolf, is the leading candidate to become the chief coordinator. Wolf currently serves as the department’s leading specialist on arms proliferation issues.

But the United States still faces enormous obstacles in the Arab world. Like America’s European allies, the Arabs are refusing to sideline Arafat completely, which has produced differences over what the final statement will say.

In addition, only four Arab states -- represented by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Bahrain’s King Hamed bin Isa Khalifa and Jordan’s King Abdullah -- will be in Egypt.

A longtime ally, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, is not attending, despite U.S. hopes, because of domestic “difficulties,” Powell said Monday.

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Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report from Evian, France.

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