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Bush To Visit Middle East Next Month

President Bush will visit the Middle East in early January as he presses the Israelis and Palestinians to restart moribund peace talks, the White House said Tuesday.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe would not release details of Bush's itinerary, but an Israeli television station said the president would visit Israel.

Other Israeli media outlets reported Mr. Bush's visit would take place Jan. 9. Israeli government officials refused to comment.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv refused to confirm or deny the report. This would be Mr. Bush's first visit to Israel since he took office.

A Western official familiar with the organization of the trip told CBS News, nothing will be "officially confirmed until the White House confirms." He would say that his understanding was that such a visit would make sense within the President's current travel plans, and that it would likely include both Israeli and Palestinian meetings.

"If they do one side, they should do the other," the source said. "The trip is earlier than expected, but fits in with Bush's long-planned trip to the Gulf early next year," he adds.

Aaron Miller, a scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told CBS News, "I assumed that he would go sometime next year. January would seem a bit early. Their calculation has to find a balance between demonstrating presidential engagement and not wasting it. They would want to give the Israelis and Palestinians some time to organize themselves post-Annapolis, but as you know with most White House matters, it's scheduling."

Last week, Bush hosted a high-profile Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told international backers and skeptical Arab neighbors that they were ready to resume bargaining toward achieving an independent Palestinian homeland.

Bush has held Mideast peacemaking at arms' length for most of his nearly seven years in office, but he argues that conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories now are right for a more energetic role. He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ready to make peace, there is a wider and unifying fight against extremism fed by the Palestinian conflict, and the world understands the urgency of acting now.

Fundamental differences have led to the collapse of previous peace efforts: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Israel said Tuesday it is seeking bids to build more than 300 new homes in a disputed east Jerusalem neighborhood, drawing Palestinian condemnations that the move is undermining the newly revived peace talks. Eastern Jerusalem is considered the Arab sector, and the Arabs want that part of Jerusalem in any agreement to divide the city.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat sent an urgent message to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asking her to block the project from moving forward. "This is undermining Annapolis," he said.

Negotiating teams were to hold their first session in the region in just two weeks, on Dec. 12, and Olmert and Abbas plan to continue the one-on-one discussions they began earlier this year. Many of the same nations and organizations attending the meeting in Annapolis were scheduled to gather on Dec. 17 in Paris to raise money for the cash-strapped Palestinians.

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