President Bush today borrowed a page from the global strategy book of his friend and wartime ally Tony Blair, drawing an analogy between the stalled Middle East peace process and negotiations that have largely ended 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The process that led to a cease-fire and political power sharing in the British province was "the same vision we need to have in the Middle East," Bush told a joint news press conference with Blair.
He added: "I believe peace is possible. I've talked at length with the prime minister about how hard he had to work to bring the process this far. I'm willing to expend the same amount of energy in the Middle East."
Blair chose Northern Ireland as the venue for Iraq war talks with Bush in part to give new momentum to the negotiations here. But today's news conference wound up giving more potential impetus to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a task Bush has shied away from until recently, analysts said.
Bush and his top aides have long argued that Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor, expended too much time and personal capital in trying to resolve the conflict. Bush, by contrast, has maintained his distance, while expressing strong support for the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
But from the time a year ago when the United States and Britain turned their attention to Iraq, Blair has pressed his American partner for action on the Middle East. He has argued that progress there would reduce bitterness in the Muslim world over the war against President Saddam Hussein.
He has also sought a commitment from Bush to placate his own left-of-center political allies in Britain who believe the Palestinian cause is an important issue.
Blair and his closest aides have claimed for months to have received private commitments from Bush about the Middle East, although they have refused to specify what those commitments were. Recent meetings between the two leaders have included long discussions of Israel and the Palestinians, aides said, and Bush has publicly restated his commitment to establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, and to publishing the "Roadmap to Peace," a document drawn up collectively by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union that outlines a three-year process leading to Palestinian independence.
Such an engagement would mirror Bush's father's active involvement in the Middle East peace process following the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago. That administration pressed Israel to hold talks with Arab states and Palestinians identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Madrid in September 1991.
Some analysts were skeptical that President Bush would or could follow in his father's diplomatic footsteps. They pointed out that Israel and its allies in the United States have dismissed the peace plan as a deeply flawed document that favors the Palestinian cause at the expense of Israel's security.
Analysts questioned whether Bush has the will to take on a segment of his political base over Israel, especially as the United States moves closer to the 2004 presidential election. "The United States' unique role in the Middle East is a function of its ability to persuade both Palestinian and Israeli leaders to make hard decisions," said James P. Rubin, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. "But the political dynamics in Washington make it hard to see how Bush will be in a position to do that when the crunch time comes at the end of this year and early next year."
Others suggested that the analogy between Northern Ireland and the Middle East was difficult to sustain. David Russell, a researcher who has studied Middle East parallels for Democratic Dialogue, a research organization in Belfast, pointed out that Protestant paramilitary groups here have flown Israeli flags, while the Catholic-dominated Irish Republican Army has identified with the PLO.
"But the obvious distinction," he said, "is in Northern Ireland the process is all about peaceful coexistence within a single political entity, whereas the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a struggle to create two separate states. Also, you need credible negotiators on each side. Sinn Fein has been very successful in bringing the republican community along with them. I'm not sure the PLO has the same capability."
The local political leaders who met with Bush and Blair were cautious both about the Middle East analogy and whether Bush's presence could help their own fragile peace process.
"The conflation of the two issues and the summit made some people feel cynical," said Mark Durkan, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which competes with Sinn Fein for support from the province's Catholic minority. "Some people felt the idea was to make our peace process look good, while others thought it was to make their war look good."
Both the Social Democratic and Labor Party and Sinn Fein have opposed the war in Iraq, and leaders from both parties said they presented Bush and Blair with antiwar petitions and statements. Nonetheless, both they and David Trimble, leader of the predominately Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, said they believed Bush's presence was helpful.
The parties face a major crossroads this week when Blair and the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, release a proposal on the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement for completing the peace process.