President Bush will make his first trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank next month to push Israel and the Palestinians toward peace and try to write his own chapter in the annals of Mideast diplomacy.
On a nine-day trip beginning Jan. 8, Bush plans to stop in Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It will be Bush's first presidential visit to each of the countries, except Egypt.
Mideast peacemaking has been on the back burner during most of Bush's presidency, but he emerged from a high-stakes conference in Annapolis, Md., last month re-energized about assisting Israel and the Palestinians in forming an independent Palestinian homeland. The trip is aimed at helping the two sides gain traction in talks that got under way earlier this month.
"Part of it is to continue to keep the discussions going, to show the commitment and to remind the world that this is a moment that has presented itself, and it's time for everyone to seize the opportunity to make sure that the Palestinians and the Israelis are supported," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday. "In addition to that, the president wants to help try to increase Israeli and Arab reconciliation."
Bush will focus the leaders on finding a long-term, sustainable peace, although it remained unclear whether he would engage in detailed negotiations. He is scheduled to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. No three-way meeting is planned.
"The important thing is for the leaders to keep their eye on the big picture and to work with their staffs - and trust their staffs - who are going to work out these details," Perino said. "And the president can help facilitate those discussions. I do not anticipate, although we can let you know as we get closer, whether there would be detailed discussions about a concession on one side or the other."
The White House said the trip also will be an opportunity to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the security of American allies in the Middle East, especially the Gulf nations, and work with them to combat terrorism and extremism. Iraq, Iran, regional security and economic ties also will be discussed on the trip.
Bush met in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with leaders in the region in June 2003. Perino said she did not think a stop in Iraq will be added, although the White House does not announce such trips in advance for security reasons.
In Jerusalem, Bush will meet with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and in the West Bank he will meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He will not meet with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in elections in June. That split the Palestinian territory in two - the Gaza Strip run by Hamas and the West Bank controlled by Abbas.
"The president wants to deal with the elected leader of all the Palestinians," Perino said, referring to Abbas and Fayyad. "He is going to focus on talking with them. Hamas is a terrorist organization. He is not going to be talking with them."
Bush says conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories are ripe for a more aggressive U.S. role: Abbas and Olmert agreed in Annapolis to renew peace talks, there is a unifying fight against extremism fed by the Palestinian conflict, and the world understands the urgency of acting now.
Negotiating teams held their first session in the region on Dec. 12, but a peace agreement is far from a reality. Fundamental differences on these key issues have led to the collapse of previous peace efforts: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Since Hamas wrested control from Abbas' Fatah forces, Gaza's 1.5 million residents have been virtually cut off from the outside world. Unemployment has risen to about 50 percent, forcing poverty up to 75 percent.
In a boost to the Palestinian government, international donors on Monday pledged $7.4 billion in aid during the next three years to support Abbas' government. Abbas used the conference of world leaders in Paris to urge Israel to remove roadblocks quickly, stop building its separation barrier in the West Bank and to freeze settlement expansion, "without exceptions."
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak emerged from a meeting with James L. Jones, the new American military envoy to the region, to say that Israel would not let up in its offensive in Gaza, although the militants' threats of revenge must be taken seriously.
Middle East peace has eluded U.S. presidents for years. Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, was his nation's leader in July 2000 when President Clinton hosted a summit at Camp David with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The summit failed and violence continued. Bush refused to deal with Arafat, who died in 2004.