US envoy paves way for Bush summit

30th May 2003

US Middle East envoy William Burns paved the way yesterday for President George W Bush's first hand-on foray into Arab-Israeli peacemaking, at upcoming summits in Egypt and Jordan.

But with Burns' arrival in Cairo indicating summit preparations were gathering pace, a leading Egyptian commentator warned against "the illusion" that the US administration would finally act as an impartial peace broker.

Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, was to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early today in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the venue for Tuesday's summit, Egyptian sources said.

"Mr. Burns' talks will focus on all Arab and international issues," an official at the Egyptian government-run press center said.

A US embassy spokesperson said US officials who have been in Sharm el-Sheikh for the past few days were involved in "very careful preparations because it's an important summit".

Bush was to meet Mubarak and other Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh before flying across the Red Sea to Aqaba, Jordan for a summit with Palestinian premier Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, hosted by King Abdullah II.

Apart from Bush, Mubarak has also invited Abbas, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Jordan's King Abdullah, King Hamad of Bahrain and Morocco's King Mohammed VI to the summit, Mubarak's office said.

On the agenda are "peace in the Middle East, the future of Iraq and its stability, international efforts to fight terrorism and economic cooperation", Mubarak's office said.

US officials who asked not to be named said they were not aware Abbas would attend the summit in Egypt and added that the "main issue" on the agenda will be the so-called "roadmap" for peace.

The roadmap, drafted by the US, United Nations, European Union and Russia, calls for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence, a freeze on Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and an Israeli troop withdrawal.

Such moves are aimed at paving the way for a Palestinian state in 2005 that would live in peace with Israel.

It has been approved by the Palestinian cabinet and, less wholeheartedly, by the Israeli government, which listed 14 reservations.

The Palestinian ambassador to Cairo, Mohammed Sobeih, said Abbas would attend the summit, where he would urge Bush to help stop Israeli attacks and ensure the "roadmap" is implemented unchanged.

Sobeih said a surge in Israeli attacks and announcements of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories undermined chances of ending the 32-month cycle of violence and reviving the moribund peace process.

He said "gestures of goodwill" were badly needed.

Sobeih warned that the summits were "the only chance now" to end so much suffering on the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

In addition, he said the Palestinian Authority needed help in overcoming a serious financial crisis stemming from the violence and blockades in the territories.

Meanwhile, Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist with the Egyptian government newspaper Al-Ahram, warned against high expectations.

"Many will fall into the illusion that the US administration will take on its responsibilities and give new impetus to the roadmap to start the peace process promised by the US president a year ago," he wrote.

"It would be absurd for some to get carried away by wild optimism," because of the history of peace negotiations.

He said former US president Bill Clinton's mediation had brought the two sides to the brink of a final settlement only to see "Israel (had) undermined everything in one move".

He warned Arabs not to expect the start of a free-flowing peace process "because it comes late and after the war against Iraq, with the feelings of defeat and frustration (the war created) in the Arab world".

The Arabs can only view the US victory in Iraq as proof that Washington "only mobilizes on Israel's behalf" because the fall of Saddam Hussein removed a major threat to the Jewish state, he wrote.

"The roadmap will not move if Sharon empties it of its meaning and if the US helps it in this direction, under the pressure of time and US elections" due next year, he said. – Sapa.