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In Mideast peace process, how big a role will Bush play?

Bush appears to be playing down the importance of the US in the process, but some experts see a need for an active outside arbiter.

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After President Bush's high-profile speech Tuesday at the Annapolis meeting on Middle East peace and Wednesday's scheduled Rose Garden appearance with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, there are still questions about just how involved the United States will be in the relaunched negotiations.

How intense a role will Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has logged more than 100,000 miles this year addressing the conflict, now play?

Will the administration name a special envoy to monitor progress in specific areas?

At what point – if ever – will the Bush administration put on the table the outlines of a final accord, the kind of role the US has played before, but which the US under Mr. Bush has so far rejected?

And will the president engage in further personal diplomacy, which many observers say will be crucial for progress but which Bush has eschewed?

The answers could well determine just how far the negotiations go, some experts say, even as they see seeds of hope in what the US has done this week.

"So far, so good," says Arthur Hughes, a former director general for the multi­national force for Egypt-Israel peacekeeping who is now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. "The president has put his personal imprimatur on this process and committed to some involvement."

The formal commitment of the two sides to start negotiations next month and to keep to a rigorous schedule – all under the eye of the US, as Bush said – is also promising, Mr. Hughes says.

But he adds that glaring "mixed signals" sent out by the administration are feeding doubts about the US commitment. As one example, he notes that while Bush committed the US to "facilitating" the way forward, other senior administration officials have been busy "promoting the idea that it is a mistake for the US to propose anything" to the two sides in the way of specific steps and final parameters.

Indeed, the Bush administration appears to be playing down the importance of the US role, when past experience suggests the two sides need an outside arbiter pushing them along, some analysts say. "If history serves as a guide, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will not go anywhere without US presidential intervention," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

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