President Bush is expected to try to revive the Middle East peace process this month, with several high profile visits planned by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. The meetings are expected to focus on a new proposal by Mr. Sharon to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Sharon has proposed pulling Israeli troops and eventually 7,500 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip and small parts of the West Bank.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who recently returned from a trip to the region, says such a pullout is historic for both sides. "What we see for sure is that the Israelis are going to do something that Palestinians themselves will say is historic," he said. "Every Palestinian I spoke to when I was out there said the same thing to me. It was when the Israelis evacuate settlements and are withdrawing from territory in a Palestinian context, it is unprecedented. Because it is unprecedented it is historic for us and the issue is can we, [and] the Palestinians, take advantage of it or not."
David Makovsky, a former diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz newspapers, is now director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Makovsky, who just returned from a trip to the Middle East, says sentiment in Israel is strong that this is the year for action.
He says Israeli leaders want to move quickly since they are not sure whether President Bush or Democratic challenger John Kerry will win this year's presidential election.
"If Israel doesn't initiate in 2004," he said, "it will find itself surprised in 2005 because it doesn't know exactly where the Kerry administration would go, if there is a Kerry administration, or because a second-term Bush administration might be different than a first-term Bush administration? Whoever is in power, it is clear, as Israel sees it, 2004 is Israel's year. An election year to try to get the United States, to try to work with it, to lock in a strategy for the years ahead."
Just days before meeting with Prime Minister Sharon, President Bush is scheduled to host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Jordan's King Abdullah has also scheduled a visit later this month.
Mr. Makovsky says Egypt is concerned about the rising influence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the anger stirred by Israel's targeted killing last month of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Sheikh Yassin founded Hamas in 1987 after leading a Palestinian branch of another group called the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned as a political organization in Egypt.
Mr. Makovsky says Cairo is carefully monitoring Prime Minister Sharon's proposal to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, which shares its southern border with Egypt.
"For the Egyptians, as Egyptian officials told me when I was just in Cairo - quote 'we will not tolerate a Muslim Brotherhood state on our eastern border.' That was stated to me at a very high level and I attached a lot of significance to that. I think the Egyptians have a clear interest that there is no spillover of the Muslim Brotherhood equivalent, Hamas, and therefore they do want to do what they can to make it work," he said.
Israeli officials have held a series of meetings in Washington recently, while representatives of the Bush administration have traveled to the Middle East to discuss details of Mr. Sharon's proposal.
Israeli officials are reportedly seeking U.S. guarantees in return for the Gaza pullout, including recognition that several large settlement blocks in the West Bank would remain inside Israel when borders are eventually drawn for a Palestinian state.
Palestinian leaders have cautiously welcomed an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. They say it should be a first step that would result in a complete Israeli pullout from the West Bank, a resumption of peace talks and a comprehensive settlement between both parties.
Palestinians have expressed concern that unilateral disengagement could eventually preclude the establishment of their state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross says it is critical that the Israelis and Palestinians coordinate any withdrawal from Gaza to avoid chaos and a power vacuum that allows Palestinian militant groups like Hamas to seize power.
Mr. Ross says the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party know the importance of such an understanding.
"On the Palestinian side there is, I found, a profound desire to have an understanding and a profound fear if there is no understanding," he said. "Indeed what I saw was an incredible convergence between people in the IDF and the new guard, or young guard of Fatah, who both basically said we need to have understanding so that what happens the day after is something that leaves us both better off. If there are no understandings, the one thing we can be certain of is that we will be far worse off. One Palestinian said to me if there are no understandings what we will have is Somalia."
The violence of the past 3-and-a-half years has derailed cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.
About 2,800 Palestinians and 950 Israelis have died since the current Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000.
Prime Minister Sharon has given assurances that if the settlements are dismantled, he will still support the "road map" peace plan put forward by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
There has been no progress on the "road map" for months, with both sides accusing each other of failing to implement the plan.