If circumstances determined whether the Middle East peace plan known as the 'road map' succeeded, the process would be doomed. The most yet pro-Israeli American administration is attempting to bring together Israel's reluctant super-hawk prime minister and his politically-weakened Palestinian counterpart. Behind them lies a decade of ruined previous attempts littered with thousands of deaths, broken promises, lies and deceit. Needless to say that scepticism among observers on all sides is high - yet they maintain a glimmer of hope that this time a lasting peace can be forged between Israelis and Palestinians. The unscientific logic is that so many negatives might just evolve into a positive. US President George W. Bush has added a spark to that glimmer by taking a personal interest. This week, he will make his first visit to the Middle East since taking office in January 2001 to co-host two summits with key power brokers. A bold and surprising decision, observers like former US envoy Philip Wilcox view it as a sign that the US is finally willing to push harder to resolve differences between Jews and Arabs. By doing so, Mr Bush would be protecting American interests and rescuing Israelis and Palestinians from a miserable impasse that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the US-backed creation of Israel in Palestinian lands 55 years ago. 'Whether the Bush administration will summon the political will to do that and pursue it with the kind of stamina and diplomatic skill that is required, I don't know,' said Mr Wilcox, who is president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace. 'I hope it will. History does not offer much encouragement, but one must be optimistic.' That small hope, mixed with great scepticism, is shared by observers on all sides. They wonder about the true will of the US, which is considered the only mediator capable of forcing key ally Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. The closest they have come was in 1993 with the signing in Oslo of an accord which initiated a process to culminate in a Palestinian nation. Mr Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, brokered further agreements, but progress stalled and collapsed on September 29, 2000, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called for an intifada against Israeli settlement-building in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank. Mr Bush's administration took office four months later, followed within weeks by the election of hardline former Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon as prime minister. Mr Sharon's tough approach and his declaration that the Oslo agreement was dead prompted a wave of suicide bombings by Arab extremists that have killed more than 300 Israeli civilians. Reprisal attacks have claimed at least 2,800 Palestinians. During the first 10 months of his presidency, Mr Bush wanted nothing to do with the conflict and even then, half-heartedly, tried to bring Mr Sharon and Mr Arafat together. Soon, though, interest waned and the US sided with Israel in accusing Mr Arafat of being behind the bombings and refusing to deal with him. Only through the urging of British Prime Minister Tony Blair - the chief supporter of the war in Iraq - was the road map drawn up. Sponsored by the quartet of the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, it was announced last October and published on April 30 in the wake of the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and appointment of a cabinet by Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. The plan lays the groundwork for the creation of a Palestinian state within the next three to five years. It leaves crucial questions - including the contentious issues of Jerusalem, return of four million refugees and the boundaries of Palestine - vague. Those details will top the agenda of talks between Mr Bush and quartet members on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit that starts in Evian, France, today and in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday when he meets Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, King Abdullah of Jordan, King Hamad of Bahrain and Mr Abbas. On Wednesday he flies with Mr Abbas to Aqaba in Jordan, where they will be joined by Mr Sharon in tri-lateral talks. The US leader leaves the next day to visit American troops in Qatar. Mr Bush's change of heart was inevitable, the director of Middle East studies at the independent Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Rachel Bronson, said. Like every US leader before him, he had realised that America had too many interests in the Middle East to let the Arab-Israeli fighting go unchecked. 'That lack of American involvement allowed the situation to become worse rather than better,' Dr Bronson said. Loyalty and keeping promises had also played a factor. Mr Blair had been promised the road map would be published for militarily supporting the Iraqi war and the Bush family always kept its word. This was despite views among neo-conservatives, the hardliners in the US administration, who believed the issue was regional and of little consequence to the US. But Dr Bronson said that the building of a democratic Iraq and promises to democratise the Middle East had naturally led to a focusing on the Palestinian issue. It was a complicated matter, though, and much support was needed. 'What's required is not just the Palestinians and Israelis, but the other active and involved players in the Middle East - that's Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the UN and the EU,' she suggested. Mr Bush has already pushed Mr Sharon into accepting the road map, which was narrowly approved last week by the Israeli cabinet. The Palestinian cabinet has also given its support. It did not issue a 14-point list of reservations, like the Israelis. Some analysts believe Mr Sharon's decision was for political gain. Like the director of Bar Ilan University's programme on conflict management, Gerald Steinberg, they are sceptical. 'Decades of grandiose peace plans and, in the past 10 years, grand declarations and summit meetings, are good reasons for Israelis and Palestinians to be sceptical,' he said. If the process was to succeed, the US could only broker it. Europe's credibility with the Israelis had been destroyed because of their insistence on dealing with Mr Arafat, while disagreement arising from the war in Iraq had splintered the quartet's unity. But Dr Steinberg said that he believed Mr Bush had few options, given the climate of mistrust and hatred among Israelis and Palestinians. 'The US doesn't have that many levers to pull that they haven't used already,' he said. 'Mr Bush is in a situation where he's not going to be willing to put pressure on Israel unless there's a Palestinian effort to end terrorism. If the Palestinians fail to act, I can envisage a situation where the US and the Bush administration will wash its hands of the process and Israel will implement a unilateral separation.' Pre-summit talks last Thursday between Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas revealed little had changed. A spokesman for the Israeli leader said concessions such as some troop withdrawals from occupied territory would take place soon, but only if Palestinians ensured an end to terrorism. Given divisions within the Palestinian leadership, it is unclear how much sway Mr Arafat and Mr Abbas have over extremist groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The extremists are demanding that the territory covered by Israel be given back to the Palestinians. Palestinian Rami Khouri, executive editor of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper, said opinion polls showed both sides wanted a negotiated peace settlement and would be willing to live in separate states along side each other. But because of the past 21/2 years of conflict, the US would need to do a lot of convincing. A good sign was that Mr Bush had become the first American leader to go on record as supporting a Palestinian state - although this had not been defined. The Israeli government would probably allow the Palestinians to have only 40 per cent of the occupied territories, while the Palestinians would want it all. 'I'm hopeful and optimistic in the long run, but there's always scepticism when it comes to these kinds of dynamics because we really don't know what is driving the Americans,' Mr Khouri said. 'If they're really serious, they could make this work by pressures positive and negative - so we'll simply have to wait and see. The US is certainly going to give it a try and we need to be fair and give them a chance - although my hunch is that when the real crunch comes, they'll probably back off because the price to be paid would be too much in terms of domestic American politics.'