How Bush Got Religion

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MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Bush meets with Abbas, left, and Sharon at the Aqaba summit

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas seemed uncomfortable in the official meetings with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, and President George W. Bush at their summit in Aqaba, Jordan, last week. So Bush stepped in and did what he does best: he schmoozed. Leaving aides and interpreters behind, the President took the two leaders outside, where they sat under the shade of palm trees for 40 minutes and discussed ways to give a fresh start to the peace process. "I observe the interplay between the two," Bush said later. "Did they have the capacity to relax in each other's presence? I felt they did. The body language was positive."

George Bush sitting under a tree with Israeli and Palestinian leaders? That sight is a striking turnaround for a President who spent the first two years of his term carefully rationing his personal involvement in a conflict that had undone so many of his predecessors. But last week even many Arab leaders — who have long been skeptical of Bush and frustrated by his unbending support for Sharon — were impressed by the President's determination and depth of knowledge. "He spoke without notes, without help from his aides, and he really knew the details," says a member of an Arab delegation. "The difference between now and a year ago is amazing."

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Bush's enthusiasm was genuine. One diplomat, who was in the room at a summit of Arab leaders in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh the day before the Aqaba meeting, said Bush delivered a blunt message: "Look guys, if I didn't think I could do this, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't waste my time and come all this distance if I didn't know I could do it." White House aides later said that the President's words were not so self-referential, and that he didn't mean to suggest he alone was responsible for the future of the Middle East. Indeed, Bush spent a lot of time stressing that all parties need to take steps toward peace. But the President's decision to get personally involved in that effort — risking diplomatic embarrassment abroad and political backlash at home — was remarkable.

Bush's evolution — some might call it a conversion — on the road to peace began last June when he gave a speech declaring his support for the creation of a Palestinian state. But that support came with a catch: a change in Palestinian leadership. Critics charged that this was just a convenient excuse for doing nothing. Over the past two years the Administration has been content to stand by as Palestinian militias continued to take a heavy toll with suicide bombs and Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Palestinian towns in the West Bank. But Bush's aides argue that disengagement was a strategy designed to force changes in the Palestinian Authority. Only when the unreliable Yasser Arafat was shunted aside would the President act. That happened in April, when U.S. pressure, Israel's isolation of Arafat and a sense of hopelessness among senior Palestinians combined to force Arafat to agree to the appointment of Abbas. "What took place last week never would have been possible if Abbas hadn't happened," says a senior Bush aide. "And Abbas happened because of the President."

The summits last week also happened because of pressure from Arab leaders. A month after the President's speech, King Abdullah of Jordan and his Foreign Minister, Marwan Muasher, went to Washington to plead with Bush to follow up his words with a plan. Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, rejected the idea. But in the Oval Office, King Abdullah and Muasher appealed directly to the President. The parties needed a guide, Muasher told Bush, to reach the goals laid out in his speech. "Sounds like a good idea to me," Bush replied. Suddenly the road map was born.

The road map in itself was nothing new. What was new was Bush's personal involvement. As his advisers wrote and rewrote each draft, the President steadily increased his engagement with and understanding of the issues. When he publicly backed the text of the road map last December, Bush, who once seemed to want nothing to do with the peace process, became inexorably linked to it. Says a former Administration official: "At first, it was basically the Jordanians saying 'You're going to war in Iraq, and we're going to help you, and we need this to cover our ass.' But now it's come to have this kind of canonical status."

Bush's conversion has a lot to do with one of his personal canons: keep your word. Last year, as he lobbied European and Arab leaders to join the coalition against Iraq, Bush swore that in return for their support he would dedicate himself to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Aides say Bush believes that without the support of Britain's Tony Blair and the tacit acceptance of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, war against Saddam Hussein might not have been possible. "When he needed their help, he made these guys a promise," a senior adviser to the President says. "It sounds like spin, but he takes that stuff seriously."

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