Only the United States can chart a path to peace in the Middle East

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The Independent Online

It is not so long ago that President Bush was receiving widespread praise for the caution, steadiness of purpose and – most surprisingly – clarity of his leadership after the terrorist attacks on the United States. Mr Bush is said to have remarked that before 11 September he had asked himself why he had been entrusted with the presidency; after 11 September, he said, he knew.

But if the early stages of the "war on terror" brought out some of the best in Mr Bush and his administration, more recent developments have brought out some of the worst. In choosing to focus on the perceived threat from Iraq rather than the rapidly escalating violence in the Middle East, Washington soured relations with many Europeans and Arabs who had supported the US-led military action in Afghanistan.

The American focus on Iraq conveyed two clear messages: that Washington was more interested in military action than in diplomacy, and that Mr Bush was not about to re-launch any Middle East peace process. Those messages were reinforced by Vice-President Cheney's tour of the region, where the theme canvassed in advance was Iraq, and his stop in Israel came so soon after the arrival of Anthony Zinni, the US peace envoy, as to undermine General Zinni's authority. Mr Cheney's decision not to meet Yasser Arafat signalled further that the Bush administration was as partial as the Arab world feared.

As casualties mounted and the conflict soared to the top of the international agenda, General Zinni was not in evidence. And in Washington, the impressive single-mindedness that had characterised the Bush administration through the first weeks of the "war on terror" was notably absent. Finally, after saying little about the Middle East for weeks, Mr Bush was forced into the open and on to the defensive. Increasingly at a loss for words, as for action, he is now hopelessly entangled in the very principles that had served him so well in Afghanistan.

The so-called "Bush doctrine" on destroying terrorism calls for the elimination of terrorists and all those who harbour them, anywhere in the world. The US has troops helping or training other governments to do just this from Yemen to the Philippines. The Bush administration insists, as it has done for months, that Mr Arafat could prevent suicide attacks on Israelis. Does that make Mr Arafat a harbourer of terrorists, according to the Bush doctrine? Not at all, says the White House; Mr Arafat is an exception because he is committed to peace talks.

In the course of three days, Mr Bush and his officials have called on both Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a ceasefire, condemned Mr Arafat for not doing enough (while confined to one room with his headquarters under siege), called on Israel to withdraw from Ramallah, while also backing Israel's West Bank incursions as "self-defence". Having seemed to grow before our eyes through the autumn, his stature has now shrunk to near-vanishing point.

Yet it is America and only America that has the regional clout, and the sway over Israel, to chart a route to peace. Even a pacified Afghanistan will count for little if the Middle East is at war. Calls from senior US senators for some "dramatic action", and urgently, are not wide of the mark.

As a start, he could associate himself more clearly with the case for a Palestinian state and a ceasefire that the US has backed at the United Nations. He could support the Saudi initiative and the more tentative European proposals that may garner wider support. And he should discipline his administration to speak with one voice. Above all, he must cast off the ideological straitjacket of his "war on terror" and face the Middle East as it is: a complex of long-seething rivalries that is again on the brink of war.