WASHINGTON -- Three weeks after his tough words on the Middle East failed to produce progress, President Bush got tougher over the weekend -- personally intervening with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end the bloody standoffs between Israel and the Palestinians. One deal to lift the siege on Ramallah is done, and U.S. officials say another on Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity appears near.
But solving these crises is likely to be easy compared to what lies ahead, U.S., Arab and Israeli officials caution.
As details are worked out on freeing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from his besieged headquarters, the Bush administration is scrambling behind the scenes on how to convert the new opening into long-term gains toward peace in the Middle East. But serious gaps have emerged on what should happen next.
Once an Israeli pullout from the West Bank is complete, the Arab world, led by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, is pressing hard for one swift, final political deal to settle the half-century-old conflict, in part to avoid the prolonged stages that might foster more Palestinian frustration and violence.
But the United States is talking only about accelerating negotiations and blending the security and political phases of the peace process. And Israel wants full security arrangements in place before it begins talks on a final political settlement.
Which direction to take must be decided before the parties even get to the substantive matters -- over which there are far deeper differences.
"Nothing in the Middle East is easy," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Monday. "Nothing stays as hopeful as you'd like it to be for long."
He added: "The president is pleased with the action over the weekend and pleased with the initial follow-through, but it's going to have to be closely monitored."
The complexity of working out the deal over Arafat's departure from his headquarters in Ramallah underscores the enormity of what lies ahead.
A confluence of factors finally persuaded Bush to use diplomatic elbow grease to end the crisis provoked by the Passover massacre by a Palestinian suicide bomber that led Israel to invade the West Bank.
His actions were precipitated by the visits of Crown Prince Abdullah and other Arab leaders last week, persistent requests by European allies, the first signs of Israeli flexibility and recognition at the White House that nothing would happen on the big issues in either the Middle East or war on terrorism until the current crisis was resolved.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "had tried to work on this same arrangement when he was in the region, but the parties weren't ready then," said a senior administration official who asked to remain anonymous.
Although Bush's calls to Sharon on Saturday were the critical turning point, much of the legwork was done in a constant flurry of calls Thursday through Sunday by Powell and White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, say administration sources.
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