The United States dampened hopes Friday for swift agreement on a Mideast peace deal, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned against expecting a "blinding flash" of Arab backing for cooperation with Israel, their historic enemy.
U.S. President George W. Bush began the next chapter of his eight-day Mideast journey in Kuwait, the first of five Arab countries on an itinerary aimed at pressing them to support Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in any deal he strikes with Israel. Mr. Bush landed here after two days of talks in Israel and the Palestinian-governed West Bank. Traveling with the president, Rice said, "There will be a period of time, undoubtedly, in which the two sides continue to be very far apart."
But, she said, "There is reason to be hopeful that they can make a major move to end the conflict."
Arriving at the airport in Kuwait, the president got a ceremonial red-carpet welcome and was presented with a bouquet of flowers. But he saw nothing like the torrent of public adulation showered on his father in a visit 15 years ago.
The tiny, oil-rich nation at the top of the Persian Gulf was invaded by Iraq's Saddam Hussein and liberated by a U.S.-led war ordered by Bush's father in 1991. Now, Kuwait is a major hub for U.S. troops and equipment deployed to Iraq.
At a palace surrounded by palm trees, Mr. Bush met with the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah. He told Mr. Bush he was delighted to have him in Kuwait. "We are equally delighted to see you working on issues that are very important to all of us here," Sheik Sabah said. It was not clear what issues he meant.
CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer reports that, according to a senior official, Mr. Bush's key message to leaders of Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia comes down to "be nicer to Iraq and less nice to Iran."
The U.S. wants stepped-up Arab support for the struggling Iraqi government, and hopes Gulf nations will do more to isolate Iran.
While many of these countries worry about Iran's intentions, Maer notes that they also wants to keep the diplomatic and economic lines open to Tehran.
Like other Gulf Arab nations, Kuwait is nervous about tensions between the United States and Iran, and uneasy with the rise of Tehran. Kuwaitis also fear sectarian violence in Iraq could spill over their border.
Kuwait was conspicuous by its absence from Annapolis, Md., last year where Mr. Bush held a high-profile meeting and coaxed Israelis and Palestinians to launch their first peace talks in seven years. "They had their own reasons," Rice said of Kuwait without elaboration. Iraq was the only other invited guest to skip Annapolis.
Close Arab allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia have urged Mr. Bush to get more directly involved in Mideast peacemaking, saying the Palestinian plight spawns other conflicts and poisons public opinion throughout the region. But those states and others, skeptical about Bush's commitment to the grinding peace process, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude since Annapolis. The president's visit is partly intended to nudge them off the fence.
But Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon says, "trying for Mideast peace is not the same thing as accomplishing it."
"When the president promises, or virtually guarantees this, he's raising the stakes in a way that has some potential down sides if we fail," the foreign policy analyst told CBS' The Early Show, "because often violence follows failed negotiations."
On Saturday, Mr. Bush will address U.S. forces at Camp Arifjan, the largest U.S. base in Kuwait and home to 9,000 American troops. He also will get a briefing on the war by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador David Crocker, who is pressing Iraq's government to make progress on long-delayed political reconciliation.
The pair are due to give Congress a new update on the war in March, one that will be closely watched for whether deeper cuts in the U.S. troop level in Iraq are possible.
Mr. Bush will notify Congress on Monday of his intent to sell $20 billion in weapons, including precision-guided bombs, to Saudi Arabia, moving up the announcement to coincide with the president's arrival in Riyadh, a senior official told The Associated Press in Washington. The official announcement will kick off a 30-day review period during which Congress could try to block the sale, which has raised concern among some lawmakers.
An "Obligation" Of Arab States
In both Jerusalem and the West Bank, Mr. Bush said Arab states have an obligation to help Israel and the Palestinians in the negotiations and to move the process forward. Mr. Bush also wants Arab states to give Abbas in his internal fight with Palestinian militants.
Rice, traveling with the president on Air Force One, was asked whether Mr. Bush expected to get public statements of support from Arab leaders during this trip.
"Some of this will happen over time," the secretary said, standing in the aisle of the press cabin on the president's plane. "You know, there isn't going to be a blinding flash in any of this - not on this trip, not on the next trip. But this is a process that's moving forward."
She said Arab states "took a big step" in coming to Annapolis. "And it was the first time that the Saudis were there under their own flag. ... I feel a strong sense of support from the Arab countries."
Rice said Mr. Bush's trip, and his planned return to Israel in May, puts pressure on both sides to make difficult decisions about peacemaking. The two sides will have to resolve huge differences over conflicting claims to Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state, and the fate of Palestinian refugees and millions of their descendants, as well as settle many smaller issues.
Acknowledging the uncertainty of the negotiations, Rice said that "it's probably not possible at this point to say where they're going to be in May, let alone where they're going to be next week."
Earlier, in Tel Aviv, Mr. Bush said he would return to the Mideast in May to mark ally Israel's 60th anniversary and to continue pushing for a peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians. It was an indication that hopes to crown his final year in office by putting a personal stamp on peacemaking efforts.
"There's a good chance for peace and I want to help you," Mr. Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the airport here, where he boarded Air Force One, ending his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President, thank you very much for your invitation to come back. I'm accepting it now," Mr. Bush said on the tarmac.
During his two days of formal talks with Olmert, Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Bush laid out U.S. expectations, saying that the two sides needed to get serious talks started immediately. On his way to visit Sunni Arab allies, Mr. Bush said he'd would ask them to reach out to the Jewish state.
"I carry with me a message of optimism about the possibilities of a peace treaty," Mr. Bush said with the two Israeli leaders. "I will share with them my thoughts about you and President Abbas and the determination to work to see whether or not it's possible to come up with a peace treaty."
The nascent peace talks haven't made much headway, with old disputes about land and terrorism clouding the negotiators' early meetings.
Before leaving Israel, Mr. Bush toured holy sites near the Sea of Galilee. "Amazing experience" to walk where Jesus lived and preached, the president said.
Mr. Bush visited Capernaum, a site where Jesus is said to have performed miracles. The president gazed across the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is claimed to have walked on water. He toured the site of an ancient synagogue and joked and held hands with nuns outside the Church of the Beatitudes, a place where Jesus delivered his famed "Sermon on the Mount."
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Mr. Bush recalled passages in the early parts of the Book of Matthew about how Jesus calmed the Sea of Galilee. "He was reminded of how prayer helps him and has helped him calm rough seas in his life and certainly in the White House," she said.
Also earlier, Bush became misty-eyed as he toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The president, who first visited the memorial in 1998 when he was governor of Texas, was wearing a yarmulke as he rekindled an eternal flame and placed a red-white-and-blue wreath on a stone slab that covers ashes of Holocaust victims taken from six extermination camps.
Mr. Bush called the memorial a "sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it."
The peace effort is the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's eight-day tour, but the balance of the trip is likely to focus as much on the uncertain ambitions of Shiite Iran. Mr. Bush's Sunni allies are nervous about the rise of Iran in their midst, and the threat its adherents may one day pose to their authoritarian regimes, but also are sometimes at odds with the United States over the best strategy to address or confront Tehran.
Some Arab states are worried by a new U.S. intelligence estimate downgrading the near-term threat that Iran will build nuclear weapons. Although Mr. Bush and other U.S. officials have said Iran remains a threat, allies with less powerful militaries fear that the United States is taking itself out of a potential fight. Mr. Bush says he wants to solve the Iran puzzle through diplomacy but takes no options off the table.
In an interview broadcast Friday, Mr. Bush said there could well be a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, but it would be on the invitation of the Iraqi government. Asked on NBC's "Today" show whether that means U.S. troops would be in Iraq for at least another 10 years, Mr. Bush said, "It could easily be that. Absolutely."