THERE HAS been much optimistic comment on the meeting last week in Aqaba, Jordan, between US president George W Bush, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority representative Abu Mazen. The fact that Bush seems to be putting his shoulder to the wheel and making a serious effort to implement the so-called road map, intended to revive the Middle East peace process, has surprised many people.
The Guardian devoted its front page to the naive determination with which he approached the Aqaba meeting. The surprise is a result of two perceptions, one largely accurate, and the other partial and distorted. It is true that there are very close links between the neo-conservative ideologues currently so influential in Washington and Sharon's right wing Likud party in Israel.
One of the sources of the Bush Doctrine of preventive war seems to have been a document drafted in 1996 for Binyamin Netanyahu, who was then taking over as Likud prime minister of Israel. Those involved in drafting the document include Richard Perle, now a senior Pentagon adviser, and Douglas Feith, currently Donald Rumsfeld's number three. More misleading is the widespread belief that links of this kind, not to speak of the power of the 'Jewish lobby' in US politics, mean that the United States is bound hand and foot to Israel.
The truth is that Israel is simply one of Washington's key allies in the Middle East. From the US point of view, it is both an advantage and a disadvantage to have Israel permanently at war with the Arab world. It's an advantage because it means Israel ultimately has nowhere else to go but the American alliance.
It's a disadvantage because the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians permanently threatens to get out of hand and destabilise the entire region. That danger has become reality since the second intifada started in September 2000.
9/11 made it easier for Sharon to get a very right wing Republican administration to see things his way, but this doesn't mean that US and Israeli interests are identical.
In the past few weeks it has been Sharon who has been shifting. He forced the road map through the Israeli cabinet, used the word 'occupation' to refer to the plight of the Palestinians - something that is anathema to extreme Zionists who lay claim to the whole of Palestine.
He also said that some of the illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories will have to go as part of a final settlement. These moves must reflect pressure on Sharon from the Bush administration. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. In the early 1990s Bush's father withheld $10 billion worth of loan guarantees from Israel to push the government of Yitzhak Shamir into negotiations with the Palestinians.
But these moves, while important, don't mean that justice for the Palestinians is a prospect. For one thing, the Bush administration - true to the spirit of democracy it is showing in Iraq - insists on deciding who counts as a 'legitimate' Palestinian leader.
Yasser Arafat, despite the fact he is the elected Palestinian president, has been a non-person ever since Bush denounced him a year ago. Washington was furious when Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, visited Arafat recently.
Abu Mazen was hand-picked as the Palestinian prime minister by the Bush administration because the US and Israel believe he can be relied on to crush Palestinian militants - one of the main aims of the 'peace process' from the start.
Sharon is demanding that Abu Mazen recognise Israel as a Jewish state. This is because the Israeli government is desperate to ensure that any final settlement denies the Palestinian refugees scattered around the Middle East the right to return to Israel - a right, of course, that Israel confers on every Jew in the world.
Bush last week promised that the Palestinian state which eventually emerges will have contiguous territory. He kept stumbling over the word 'contiguous', but what he meant was that the state won't be divided up, as the Occupied Territories currently are, into separate patches of land where access is controlled by the Israeli Defence Force.
We'll see. Sharon may be prepared to scrap some of the Jewish settlements in the Territories, but it is inconceivable that he will give them all up. And he is busily building a 'security fence' along the western side of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that amounts to a covert means of annexing yet more Palestinian land.
Under American pressure, Sharon may concede a little more land and dignity to the Palestinians than he would offer if left to himself. The fact remains that this road ends in a Palestinian Bantustan - the fake homelands offered to black South Africans under apartheid. And these will be towered over by a US-armed Israeli colossus.