How Bush Got Religion

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BROOKS KRAFT/CORBIS FOR TIME

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

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It's clear that Bush now takes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously too. His performance was the primary reason that almost all the Arab, Israeli and Palestinian participants left last week's meetings expressing cautious optimism. But there are countless ways the process could unravel. If Abbas fails to rein in the militants, Sharon could be forced to respond aggressively and expose Bush to charges from hard-liners at home that he's jeopardizing Israel's security in a misguided quest to be a peace broker. Just two days after Aqaba, Hamas, one of the most militant terrorist groups operating in the Palestinian territories, scuttled a meeting with Abbas to discuss a cease-fire. And if Bush sides with Sharon, the stature the President has only just secured with the Arabs will disappear. "The summit was fine and dandy," says a senior Arab diplomat who participated in the sessions. "But there will be a snag. If Bush steps in and clears it up, everyone will fall into line behind him. If he doesn't, they'll write him off." And yet the risks for Bush may be less than they seem to be. "The public has low expectations of success because they know so many U.S. Presidents have tried this before," says a top aide. Bush will get credit from American voters for trying, even if he fails — an important consideration just 17 months before the election.

Winning over leaders is one thing; convincing wary Palestinians, Israelis and Arabs that this peace process will lead somewhere is another. Few Palestinians share the optimism felt at Aqaba. They doubt Bush's sincerity, are suspicious of Sharon's intentions and fear Abbas is an American puppet. "The problem with the Americans," a Palestinian Authority official tells TIME, "is that they get bored with the Arab-Israeli conflict very easily."

Bush subscribes to the great-man theory of history — the idea that individual leaders can have an outsize impact on the course of events. For now, he is full of optimism and enticed by the prospect of success. "A lot of Presidents have tried," Bush said as Air Force One left Aqaba. "Every President should try. We ought to use the prestige of America to try for peace... [And] maybe history is such that now we can achieve it." Even if Bush suspects that the road isn't likely to lead to everlasting peace, he at least knows he has to start traveling it.

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