Former Nato military chief appointed Middle East envoy

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President George Bush and Israeli and Palestinian leaders ceremonially launched their new drive for Middle East peace yesterday, as Washington appointed a former supreme commander of Nato to head efforts to improve security relations between the foes.

A day after the Annapolis conference, Mr Bush met at the White House with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, before all three gave their formal blessing to the process. In exactly two weeks, a steering committee of senior Israeli and Palestinian officials will hold their first negotiating session, with the goal of reaching a comprehensive settlement by the end of 2008.

But despite the show of international support at the Maryland gathering attended by a dozen Arab countries, including Syria and Saudi Arabia the obstacles in the way of a deal that has proved impossible for 60 years seemed more daunting than ever.

Measured against the low expectations deliberately fostered by the US administration, Annapolis is being seen as a modest success, above all thanks to the long-delayed joint Palestinian-Israeli declaration.

More important was the broad Arab representation, suggesting the Arab world this time is prepared to give Mr Abbas real cover for any deal he strikes, and symbolising Israel's hopes that a deal with the Palestinians could lead to peace with every other Arab country.

But all the issues that have for so long defied solution remain, notably the final status of Jerusalem, the exact borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Both sides will have to make major concessions. Yet their two leaders are domestically very weak, and Mr Abbas does not even speak for the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas and which has already rejected the Annapolis declaration.

The size of the task was acknowledged yesterday by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State. "There's never a perfect time in the Middle East," she told NBC television, "so we have to deal with the times that we've been dealt" in this case a Middle East overshadowed by the growing power of Iran.

The new US mediator and, in effect, Middle East envoy (though he is being given neither title) is the former marine general James Jones, who was Nato's top military commander from 2003 to 2005. Technically, he will act as adviser to Ms Rice on the development of the Palestinian security services. But the job will make him a key monitor of efforts to improve confidence between Palestinians and Israelis, and making sure both sides deliver on their commitment.

How much he will be able to achieve is another matter. Earlier in the Bush administration, Anthony Zinni, another marine general, held a similar job, with a conspicuous lack of results. Ultimately, much depends on Mr Bush himself. He insisted the US at most could only be a "facilitator," and could not impose a peace itself. Like his predecessor, Bill Clinton, in 2000, he is launching a major new initiative in the closing stages of his presidency. But Mr Bush said he believes the intense personal involvement of Mr Clinton was counterproductive. Many observers say, however, that without a similar effort by this President, these new talks are bound to fail.