Middle East specialists are expressing concern about President Bush's decision to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts to unilaterally disengage from areas within the Palestinian territories. Bush administration officials hope the move will help renew the moribund peace process.
Mr. Bush became the first American president to publicly suggest that Israel will not have to return all of the land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war as part of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The president also said millions of refugees will have to find homes in a new Palestinian state, rather than reclaiming land in what is now Israel.
David Makovsky is the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Makovsky says, after years of bloodshed during the current Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, the Bush administration saw an opportunity to make progress by embracing Prime Minister Sharon's proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and a handful of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"What is in it for the United States? There have been three-and-a-half years of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, endless suicide bombings," he said. "The partnership that existed between Israelis and Palestinians is so shattered that the U.S. was looking for a novel way to jump start a deeply stalled peace process, and felt it was an advantage for the United States that the Arab world would see settlements coming down and Israel evacuating the Gaza Strip."
Both Israel and the Palestinians have discussed modifying long-held negotiating positions on borders, Jewish settlements and refugee returns in private, but President Bush's public statements came as an unpleasant surprise to many in the Arab world.
Chas Freeman is currently president of the Middle East Policy Council and was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Persian Gulf War.
Mr. Freeman says the growing American support for the current Israeli government is tarnishing the U.S. image in the Arab world.
"I think most Arabs, unfortunately, will now be convinced that the United States is completely part of the problem, and no longer part of the solution," said Mr. Freeman. "We will no doubt pay a price for that."
Milton Viorst is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations who has been a news correspondent in the Middle East and a professor of journalism at Princeton University. He says the Israeli policies supported by President Bush may be self-defeating. "It just doesn't seem to be in the national interest of the United States," he said. "We are fighting this war on terror. We are seeking to ingratiate ourselves with the Islamic world. We are doing our best to show that we are even handed in dealing with the Middle East conflict.
"Yet what he seems to be doing is igniting more and more bombs, himself, in terms of dealing with the very people whose support we need in order to end the war on terrorism," he continued.
President Bush says Prime Minister Sharon's plan to withdraw soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip could open the door to progress toward a peaceful and viable Palestinian state.
Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine, says there could be a positive outcome to an Israeli pullout from Gaza if it jump-starts efforts to renew peace negotiations.
"Israel's withdrawal from Gaza can and should be made to fit in this grand vision," he said. "The challenge of all parties is to turn this into an opportunity to rebuild a new order in Gaza, one that will be the first solid step for the Palestinians to establish an independent, viable and democratic state.
"Israel, or that segment of it that wants security and peace, will have to define its risks on such a move and take them," he continued. "The Palestinian majority must seize this opportunity to plan and build, rather than to passively watch, complain and assign blame."
Prime Minister Sharon's Likud Party is scheduled to vote on the disengagement plan in May. If approved, the Israeli government could begin removing Jewish settlements from Gaza and the West Bank sometime next year.