KUALA LUMPUR, May 12 (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will be welcomed as a voice of reason in the war on terror and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he goes to the White House this week.
The veteran statesman, whose frankness has the capacity to offend Jews, gays and whites, is likely to be on best diplomatic behaviour when he meets President George W. Bush on Tuesday to receive thanks for his support since the September 11 attacks.
Shunned after the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy who dared challenge him in 1998, Mahathir is back on Washington's guest list after an eight year gap.
Former vice president Al Gore incensed Mahathir by voicing support for pro-Anwar demonstrators during a visit to Kuala Lumpur in 1998, and the State Department still regards Anwar's trials for sodomy and abuse of power as flawed.
Mahathir, ironically, goes to Washington carrying some kudos for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi by Myanmar's military junta last week.
At a time when Myanmar was regarded as a pariah, Mahathir pioneered the policy of constructive engagement with Yangon's generals to encourage political change.
An old anti-colonialist, Mahathir believes Asia should find its own way to democracy rather than be forced down the route the by West, and he distrusts western white hegemony.
He bridles at any preaching on democratic mores or at being told how to run Malaysia's economy, which he steered out of the Asian crisis -- contrary to International Monetary Fund advice -- by fixing the exchange rate and slapping on capital controls.
Whereas Washington once harboured doubts about Mahathir's diplomatic credentials, Asia's longest serving elected leader is now a man to cultivate on a number of counts.
He is a Muslim, moderate on religious issues and strong on defence and security issues, having locked up more than 60 militants in a crackdown that hotted up after September 11.
He also has clout beyond the small southeast Asian country of 23 million people that he has ruled for the past 21 years.
Next year Mahathir is a shoe-in to become the chairman of both the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), grouping 57 Muslim countries, and of the Non-Aligned Movement, which comprises 115 states largely from the developing world.
And in a region often beset by political turmoil, Malaysia represents a "beacon of stability", James A. Kelly Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs said when he visited last month.
Kelly was also full of praise for Mahathir's controversial speech to OIC foreign ministers at a conference on terrorism in Kuala Lumpur in early April.
To the chagrin of Arab delegations, Mahathir suggested Palestinian suicide bombers as well the Israeli state should be considered terrorists, along with anyone else who targets civilians.
The straight-talking Mahathir remained unruffled, as his pro-Palestinian pedigree was never in doubt.
The Middle East issue is also working in his favour at home, helping him rebuild bridges within his own ethnic Malay majority, whose vote was split in 1999 by his humiliation of Anwar.
Mahathir stole the show last week when he shared the platform with the leader of the Islamic party for the first time, live on television, in a programme condemning Israel.
Mahathir called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "an animal" and said Muslims should unite to isolate Israel diplomatically, to cheers from an audience drawn largely from the Islamic opposition, allied to Anwar.
His office issued a less emotive statement on Friday.
"We have insisted that negotiations are the only path to a peaceful resolution on this conflict and that military actions are no options for both sides."
Washington expects more of the same next week.
"When the two leaders get together, the number one issue they are going to talk about will be counter-terrorism because that's the most important issue on our agenda, and Malaysia also shares that belief," U.S. ambassador Marie T. Huhtala told Reuters.
"But they will talk about a number of other things too, especially, I believe, the situation in the Middle East."
There is also speculation that the U.S. will sell Malaysia F-18 E/F Super Hornet fighters.
The Far East Economic Review said Boeing will announce the deal next week, though a senior Defence Ministry source and a Malaysian defence analyst said that report had jumped the gun.
Malaysia's ties with the U.S. at the security level remained tight throughout all the diplomatic squalls. The U.S. is also Malaysia's biggest exporter and trading partner.
"Mahathir always preferred meeting American businessmen to American politicians," said John Mallot, former U.S. ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, who had wanted Bush to withdraw the invite to Mahathir in support of Anwar, who is serving a 15 year jail-term.