Bush's turn to step into Middle East peace-making

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WASHINGTON, Nov 14 (Reuters) Richard Nixon left office hopeful that ''peace can settle at last over the West Asia.'' Jimmy Carter staked his career on it. Bill Clinton told Yasser Arafat, ''I am a failure, and you have made me one.'' Now George W. Bush becomes the latest US president to try to resolve the bitter, long-standing differences between close US ally Israel and the Palestinians.

His effort to bring the parties together late this month in Annapolis, the Chesapeake Bay city that is home to the US Naval Academy, marks an effort to ease simmering tensions in the region and expand a foreign policy legacy likely to be headlined by war in Iraq and the Sept 11 attacks.

Many West Asia experts in Washington are skeptical that Bush, who has 14 months left in office, will be able to achieve a breakthrough in the goal he set forth in 2001 of creating the conditions for establishment of a Palestinian state to live side by side in peace with Israel.

While the Bush administration is holding out hope that the conference will launch negotiations that will result in a peace agreement before Bush leaves office, some experts wonder if the Israelis and Palestinians will have the political will to reach an accord that has been elusive for decades.

''The problem with doing these things so late in the administration is anybody who wants to can wait him out, so you lose some of your flexibility,'' said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at George Washington University.

But the experts are not writing off the US-led Annapolis conference as a useless exercise. As Brookings Institution scholar Shibley Telhami wrote: ''Even if the prospects for peace seem small, most breakthroughs in history come unexpectedly, often through surprising acts of leadership.'' LAUNCHING PAD It is unclear whether Bush himself would be involved in any negotiations. The conference is intended as a launching pad for talks on statehood and is to include Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bush came to office skeptical of Clinton's extensive use of personal diplomacy late in his presidency to try to corral Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Arafat into a deal.

The effort ended in failure at a July 2000 summit at Camp David, where Jimmy Carter had brokered an Israeli-Egyptian peace deal.

When Arafat, who was blamed for the impasse, later called Clinton a ''great man,'' Clinton wrote in his memoir of his terse reply.

''I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one,'' he told Arafat.

PJ Crowley, a foreign policy expert at the Center for American Progress who was a National Security Council spokesman for Clinton, said the West Asia situation is even more complicated now.

Both Olmert and Abbas are weak at home and the unpopular Bush has invested much of his presidency in Iraq. He is viewed with deep mistrust in the West Asia.

''Can three weak leaders produce an enduring peace agreement? The odds are that they will not be able to do it,'' said Crowley.

Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas and a long-time Bush watcher, said efforts to arrange the conference seem to reflect a more multilateral approach to diplomacy by the Bush administration.

''I think he perceives that that's the best chance he has now to have some kind of positive impact before his time runs out,'' Buchanan said.

REUTERS ARB BD1920

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