America - Andrew Stephen sees little hope for the road map

Tony Blair and John Howard, the Australian PM, may take the Middle East road map seriously, but Bush

I could not help noticing that in a message to Mexico marking the Cinco de Mayo holiday last Monday, Boy George assiduously avoided mentioning the name of the Mexican president, Vicente Fox. When Bush became president, he considered Fox his closest foreign ally; at that time, Mexico and Fox were the former Texas governor's only experience of foreign affairs. Not mentioning Fox's name now is Bush's way of putting him in his place for not supporting the US in the invasion of Iraq. And that just about sums up the sophistication of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Will Jacques Chirac get an invitation any time soon to the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas? No, Chirac can cry into his bouillabaisse for that invitation. So take that, you disrespectful Frog.

On Sunday, by contrast, it was all lovey-dovey stuff at Crawford with the Australian prime minister, John Howard. No country could wish for a greater friend than Australia, they had the best troops in the world, Australia is rather like Texas: that sort of thing. But amid the love-in, Howard - like Tony Blair - made a point of saying that he hoped the Middle East road map would now be pursued, following the invasion of Iraq. Bush meanwhile made no mention of peace in the Middle East.

As I write, Colin Powell, the secretary of state, is preparing to make the first recent top-level US visits to Israel and Palestine - although he will abide by one of Israel's first demands, that the US ignore Yasser Arafat. This mission will prove to be Powell's greatest challenge since assuming office. The first hurdle will be not so much to achieve the almost insuperable task of bringing peace between Israel and Palestine, but to regain a meaningful foothold within the administration over the road map.

Doubtless Powell's visit will garner a lot of publicity in, say, Britain and Australia - with both their leaders anxious to show their domestic audiences that the Iraq invasion had a primary and useful aim of winning the peace between Israel and Palestine.

But Bush's attitude over the road map, so far, has been to sweep it rather hurriedly and embarrassedly under the carpet. The mindsets over Israel and Palestine in Britain and the US are a zillion miles apart, and it is hard to see the Bush administration bending at all convincingly from its staunchly pro-Israel stance: while Bush may be receiving pressure from Blair and Howard, he is also being pushed along by the ultra-pro-Israel hawks in his administration such as the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz - whose hands, paradoxically, have been strengthened by the Iraq invasion.

Dubbya's dad pushed hard for peace in the Middle East - another mistake, says Boy George's team, which cost Dad the presidency in 1992. Israel, after all, receives fully a third of the US's overseas aid budget - and now, particularly since the 11 September atrocities, Israel and the US are united in fighting wars against terrorism. Aren't al-Qaeda and Palestinians who blow themselves up in Israel basically the same? Here, once again, we come back to the sophistication of foreign policy as it is practised by the extreme right-wingers who have now seized control. With the presidential election less than 18 months away, Dubbya cannot afford to alienate the Jewish vote in, say, the crucial state of Florida; the right-wing "Christian" vote, needed throughout the south, is also deeply pro-Israel. Bush's tactic is to use money to push Israel and Ariel Sharon towards compromise: extra military aid worth $1bn has been approved, with loan guarantees of $9bn-10bn in the pipeline.

Israel's policy and that of the US are basically identical: the onus is not so much on Israel to withdraw from Gaza and other occupied territory, but for the wretched Palestinians to stop blowing themselves up in Israel. The average American would be astonished to learn that since the intifada began, 763 Israelis have been killed along with no fewer than 2,287 Palestinians. Jerusalem, settlements, borders, four million refugees: it is hard to see the Bush administration making Israel budge over any of these issues.

Sharon made it clear last Tuesday, in a speech marking Israel's Independence Day, that there is little or nothing Israel should do until the Palestinians make all the first moves. In such an atmosphere, is Dubbya going to make Israel accept an independent Palestinian state?

It is certainly hard to envisage. The road map is supposed to bring peace by 2005. To the likes of Blair and Howard, that means intense negotiations in which each side, agonisingly, gives ground inch by inch. To Boy George and the new Washington establishment, it means the end of Palestinian terror attacks. If the leaders of Britain and Australia truly believe that they have brought about a blinding conversion in Washington, both they and their followers will be sorely disappointed.