Washington was yesterday struggling to salvage its Middle East policy after a series of blows to its credibility and influence at the Arab summit in Beirut.
President George Bush's administration had publicly called for Yasser Arafat to be allowed to attend the summit, and US officials had privately assured journalists that Washington would be able persuade the Israeli government to relax its travel restrictions on the Palestinian leader.
But even a call from the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, on Monday night failed to obtain guarantees that Mr Arafat would be allowed to return to the Palestinian territories after the summit.
"The fact that they could not guarantee his return underlines the limitations on how this administration is able to influence the Israelis," an Arab diplomat in Washington said.
News of the latest suicide bomb attack last night in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya - causing the deaths of at least 15 people and wounding 100 more - further undermined America's attempts to negotiate a ceasefire.
US officials were taken by surprise by the last-minute decision of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah not to attend the Beirut summit. Their non-attendance, apparently in solidarity with Mr Arafat, has damaged the momentum behind the Saudi peace plan, even if it is eventually adopted at the summit.
The US administration has thrown its weight behind the Saudi proposal, which offers Arab acceptance and recognition of Israel in return for the latter's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. An official at the state department pointed out yesterday that, despite the absence of Arab leaders, the summit was still expected to approve the initiative. "That's the key - not the attendance," the official said.
Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council for Foreign Relations, said that a statement from the summit supporting the Saudi plan would be "very, very important. It would be codifying the end of the conflict."
However, Ms Kipper said there was unlikely to be progress towards achieving a ceasefire "without sustained, proactive American involvement in negotiations".
She said that the US special envoy, the retired marine general Anthony Zinni, had drawn up a ceasefire blueprint that was being presented to both sides as a definitive document.
After the CIA director, George Tenet, presented a ceasefire plan last year, it was formally accepted by both sides, but the Israelis are said to have produced their own 14-page interpretation of what it meant. The Palestinians then reportedly produced a response, and the US negotiators lost the initiative.
The Arab diplomat in Washington said US policy had changed recently "towards putting more pressure on both parties instead of putting the brunt on the Palestinians."
At the weekend, Mr Cheney admitted that the Israelis and Arabs were unable to restart the peace process on their own, and that high-level US involvement was essential if Washington was to win Arab acquiescence for military action against Iraq.
His remarks reflected a significant shift in the attitude of an administration which had come to office vowing to stay out of the Middle East until both sides showed a readiness to reach a deal. The administration was particularly critical of Bill Clinton, who it accused of wasting US credibility in his tenacious but ultimately abortive pursuit of a Middle East settlement.
But yesterday, Arab officials said that the Bush administration was now losing credibility as a would-be broker and enforcer of the Saudi initiative.
Mohammed Sobeih, the Palestinian ambassador to the Arab League, said the US failure to persuade Mr Sharon to release Mr Arafat had raised questions about "how can we expect the Americans to help implement the initiative."
"The initiative would be completely in vain," he said.
Ms Kipper said it was unclear whether General Zinni had enough White House backing to force both sides into concessions. "The question remains whether he has a mandate from the president to really push for a ceasefire," she said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002