JERUSALEM – It will be an odd collage of opposing styles, divergent personal histories and distinct political agendas when leaders of the Palestinians, Israel and America hold their summit Wednesday.
On one side is Abbas, a quiet man making his debut on the diplomatic stage after a political lifetime in the shadows. He is bolstered by American backing and guarded Israeli trust -- the very factors that undermine him with many Palestinians.
On the other side is Sharon, a master political tactician, an ex-general known as the "bulldozer" who has spent the greater part of his military and political careers fighting the Palestinians -- only to now declare it's time to grant them their own state.
In the middle stands Bush, the straight talker who took office distrustful of "nation building" abroad and wary of the Mideast mediating that bedeviled his predecessor. Now -- in the wake of Sept. 11 and the wars in Afghanistan (search) and Iraq (search) -- he promises he is "determined to work to make this happen."
"You see three people who are transformed by the circumstances," said Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea. "Sharon is trying something he didn't try in the past. Bush was transformed after 9/11, but he wouldn't bother to deal with the Middle East if he didn't have this kind of trauma and decisions behind him." And Abbas "was always considered too nice to really lead the Palestinian cause."
Their chances for success are favored by the agenda at the summit in Aqaba, Jordan -- finding a way to end 32 months of violence while leaving until later the complicated details of the "road map" peace plan, an international blueprint for eventually establishing a Palestinian state.
President Clinton and other negotiators failed at Camp David in 2000 when they tried to tackle the tough issues -- final borders, the division of Jerusalem and the fate of Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees.
It helps that Bush's international clout is at a high and that the Israelis and Palestinians are weary of a conflict that has killed thousands and badly harmed their economies.
Sharon is an unlikely peacemaker. He spent decades fighting the Palestinians as a soldier, then blocking peace efforts and promoting Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As prime minister since 2001, he has ordered tough military measures against the Palestinians, but also began expressing support for a limited Palestinian state. In a speech last week, Sharon stunned colleagues in his hawkish Likud party with words more likely to come from Israeli peaceniks: "To keep 3.5 million people under occupation is bad for us and them."
Some say the views of the 75-year-old prime minister have changed near the end of his political career. Others are convinced it's an act to keep on good terms with Bush. Still others say Sharon may not even know himself.
"He was never a right-winger or a left-winger," columnist Amnon Abramovich wrote in the newspaper Maariv. "He was and remains a man of impulses, instincts and reflexes. A complex of inclinations and reactions."
Abbas, 67, also known as Abu Mazen, usually avoided attention as he served the Palestinian cause for four decades in Yasser Arafat's shadow. Now he is being as a leader and positive change from Arafat, who has been shunned by the U.S. and Israeli governments for not stopping terrorism.
Abbas is an outspoken opponent of Palestinian attacks on Israelis and is eager to make a good impression at the summit. It was Abbas' appointment as premier in April that persuaded Bush to step in.
Abbas is "very much credible, sincere and serious, and he is very much impatient to have results and achievements," said Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli legislature who is close to Abbas.
Yet the new prime minister doesn't have much of a power base beyond his Israeli-U.S. support. Ordinary Palestinians overwhelmingly favor Arafat, while Arafat appears to be trying to use his still considerable power to undermine Abbas.
Abbas' own history might complicate a future peace deal. A refugee himself from Safed, in northern Israel, he is devoted to the idea of Palestinians returning to their lost homes in Israel. The demand for the "right of return" is flatly rejected by Israelis and has been a major factor in previous failures of peace efforts.
Bush's entry into the Mideast fray represents something of an about-face for Bush, who has privately criticized Clinton for the ill-fated Camp David summit of July 2000, saying presidents shouldn't get involved in such high-stakes ventures unless progress is assured.
Then came Sept. 11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Bush now finds himself with the opportunity to try to parlay victory into a broader Middle East peace. He seems determined to make the effort.
Bush said last week he would tell Sharon and Abbas: "This isn't just a visit in which you won't hear from me again. ... I want them to look me in the eye so they can see that I am determined to work to make this happen."