George Bush Jr has again followed in the footsteps of Bush Sr. After conquering Iraq, the current US president threw himself into the Middle East problem, like his father who, following his victory over Iraq in 1991, also tried to don on the toga of the chief peace-broker in the war-torn region.
But the son's position today is much weaker than his father's. The US triumph in the military campaign of the early 90s eroded the influence of radical Palestinian groups and elevated Washington to the position of an umpire hovering above the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today, however, America is trying to play the role of a broker, while being a de facto occupying power in one of the Arab countries - Iraq. As a result, the "Arab street" is beyond itself with rage, which translates into terrorist acts, which are increasingly spreading over the Muslim countries.
Father and son also differ in their perception of the main players in the peace process in the Middle East. Bush Sr saw that Syria and Lebanon were no less important than the conflicting sides - Israel itself and Palestinians - which was reflected in the composition of the Madrid conference.
As regards the summit at Sharm al-Sheikh, with which Bush Jr is beginning his personal plunge into Middle East peace-making, it is also attended, in addition to the prime minister of the Palestinian authority, by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Syria and Lebanon were, of course, not invited. This choice of conferees by the American president seems to confirm indirectly the charges of "collaborating with America" levelled against the four Arab countries by Ayman al-Zawahiri, number two in the Al-Qaeda hierarchy, immediately after the recent bombings at Riyadh. They are the same four that Washington invited to come to Sharm al-Sheikh.
The leaders of these countries seem to be wedged in between the indignation of the "Arab street", which is filling Al-Qaeda ranks, and its sense of frustration against the US.
The current American administration completely ignored the Arab world's opinion when a military campaign against Iraq was being prepared. Proceeding from this bitter experience, participants in the Sharm al-Sheikh meeting can think that following the victory in Iraq their point of view will be reckoned with by Washington even to a lesser degree. A "frank" and "confidential" exchange of views is welcome. But any substantial influence on further US conduct in the region in its attempts to have the road map implemented is unlikely.
In effect, George W. Bush is currently using the summit in Sharm al-Sheikh and will use his subsequent meeting with the leaders of Israel and Palestinian authority in Aqaba, Jordan, above all to edge out of the peace process Yasser Arafat, hated by the Americans and Israelis, endorsing in the role of the main Palestinian representative Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover, with Arafat officially remaining the head of the authority.
This would not look particularly sinister were not Arafat's status to be diluted against the backdrop of clear US instructions that it is expecting its Arab friends to accept the new American order both in the world generally and in the Middle East in particular. An order based on the logic of military strength. Arab countries following this logic will be rewarded, and dissenting ones punished.
The impact of this logic was felt recently by Syria, which was subjected to unceremonious American pressure and threats. Washington accused Damascus of hiding no less a personality than Saddam Hussein and his associates, although many thoughtful Arab observers saw a different thing in that - an attempt to chastise Syria for what Washington thinks is an excessively independent foreign policy.
No sooner had the anti-Syrian drive abated than warlike neo-conservatives in the American administration pounded on Iran, a country enjoying great political weight in the region if not being of the Arab world. US attempts through fear to make the Middle East capitals more manageable exploiting the inertia of its victory in Iraq are certain to be continued.
On the other hand, without the United States, and its sometimes crude and unceremonious heavy-handed diplomacy, it is hardly possible to cut the ingrained tear- and blood-stained knot of the Middle East conflict.
The process of reconciliation, described in the road map, is so complex that it is senseless to expect any breakthrough from the participation of the American president in his first two Middle East summits at Sharm al-Sheikh and Aqaba. Hope for a breakthrough should give way to hope for slow and painstaking advance by small steps.
Americans consider the very fact of a meeting in Jordan between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas to be a big success. It is supposed that the result of this historical rendezvous may be a Palestinian-Israeli declaration which would recognise the mutual right of the conflicting parties to their statehood. This recognition, stipulated by the road map, would mark the first important step towards reconciliation.
Washington proposes to appoint a special coordinator to head a group of experts tasked with everyday assistance in implementing the peace plan. Above all, in agreeing a scheme for gradually pulling out Israeli troops from Palestinian territories and handing control over them to the Gaza and West Bank authorities. This point is included in the first phase of the road map, which must be carried out before May 2003, along with the Palestinian denunciation of violence, freezing the construction of Israeli settlements and a political reform in the Palestinian authority.
The point on the withdrawal of Israeli troops is now attracting particular attention for the paradoxical reason that it raises doubts among the Palestinians themselves. No matter how hard Mahmoud Abbas may conceal it, his administration can guarantee safety only in some parts of Gaza, but not throughout the entire authority. So the handover of control will begin in Gaza, while the Palestinian and Israeli secret services will continue their cooperation on what concerns other territories. In the view of many Middle East experts, this situation reproduces the worst aspects of the 1993 agreement in Oslo, when the peace process required that the occupier should protect victims of occupation.
However, George W. Bush's Middle East steeplechase is only just beginning. Ariel Sharon is known to be bringing to the Aqaba meeting 14 (fourteen) largely essential amendments to the road map, a product of the collective intellect of the UN, EU, US and Russia. The success of a fresh attempt at peace-making is contingent to a large extent on Washington's will to oppose this deformation of the initial concept.
Vladimir Simonov, RIAN
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18