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Bush Jumps Into Mideast Fray With Pledge To Monitor Peace Plan Steps

Annapolis, Md. — In the wake of the Annapolis peace summit, the United States is now poised to play an unexpectedly active role in mediating peace between the two sides — thanks largely to prodding by the Palestinians.

CAPETOWN: A man wearing an Israeli flag was among the handful of protesters who descended on Annapolis, Md., for this week's Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Coming into the summit, President Bush had been reluctant to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But after a day with leaders from the region, Bush set a deadline, corresponding with the end of his term, for achieving a Middle East peace accord. Bush also promised to create an American body to monitor progress.

“I pledge to devote my effort during my time as president to do all I can to help you achieve this ambitious goal,” Bush said in his speech as he opened the peace summit at the U.S. Naval Academy, which hosted the event. “I give you my personal commitment to support your work with the resources and resolve of the American government.”

The president personally helped to broker the joint Israeli-Palestinian statement, agreed upon only several minutes before the curtain was raised on the peace conference. Bush’s efforts were a marked departure from the administration’s previous hesitancy to push Israel to accept outside oversight of its commitments to the roadmap and other agreements.

“Israel always has reservations about monitoring, because in most cases it works against us,” said Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “We always said we wanted full control over our policy,” he added.

Ayalon did say that Israelis are more comfortable with the newly devised setup than they would have been in the past, thanks to the American agreement that military officials — and not just diplomats — play a role in the monitoring group.

“Diplomats usually tend to push forward the State Department’s interests even when the reality on the ground does not permit progress,” Ayalon said.

Israel will now be facing demands that it live up to the roadmap commitment for a settlement freeze and take on a deadline for reaching a peace accord.

While the United States did not set the January 2009 deadline as a firm demand, both Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have stressed that reaching an accord within this time frame is possible.

“We must all be ready to rise to our responsibilities for the sake of peace and to ensure that regional and international support is forthcoming,” Rice said.

An Israeli official told the Forward that while Jerusalem does not oppose Bush’s time frame, it still believes that “advance needs to be attached to progress on the ground.”

The beefed-up American involvement in the Middle East peace process manifests itself most clearly with the American agreement to “monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides of the roadmap,” and to make the judgment on whether both sides lived up to their commitments, before implementing the final-status agreement.

The administration is still deliberating over the makeup of the monitoring group, but Israeli sources said it will include the former commander of American forces in Europe, four-star general Jim Jones.

A Palestinian diplomat described the issue of monitoring as one of the main stumbling blocks that kept the sides from reaching an agreement on the joint statement earlier.

Another Arab diplomat, who was involved in talks with Arab League members before the summit, told the Forward that monitoring was one of the main demands that Arab nations prioritized in order to ensure their attendance at the summit.

Israeli concerns over having an American monitoring mechanism date back to the administration’s previous attempt, three years ago, to keep track of the roadmap commitments. At the time, the United States appointed John Wolf, a State Department diplomat, to head a monitoring mission based in Tel Aviv. The Israelis asked to limit Wolf’s authority to make judgments regarding adherence to the roadmap, and Wolf’s mission was dissolved after several months.

Bush’s newly active role in the peace process became apparent last week, when he pushed Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to send a senior-level delegation to attend the peace parley. Since then, Bush devoted hours to the issue, sitting down twice with Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas for pre- and post-summit discussions.

American officials who spoke to the press said the conference was a success because it brought together the international community to support the Israeli and Palestinian efforts to reach a settlement.

Yet even the administration’s active involvement could not produce any movement on the issue of normalizing relations between Israel and Arab countries.

The attendance by almost all Arab states in the Annapolis conference was not translated into any warming up on the Israeli-Arab level. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries avoided direct contact with Israelis and refused even a symbolic handshake.

“This is a serious summit, not a theater,” said the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, in a press briefing on the sidelines of the summit.

The Saudi diplomat promised that handshakes will come after Israel and the Palestinians reach a full peace agreement. Al-Jubeir refused even to acknowledge the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. Israeli officials tried to put a positive face on the cool Arab reaction.

“Our hopes should be realistic,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry.

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