Mideast By Midwest

Peter Maer is a White House correspondent for CBS News.
Traveling almost directly from coverage of the Iowa caucuses in the Midwest to President Bush's challenging odyssey to the Mideast offers some unique perspectives.

The presidential candidates, who are focused on the next primary, would be wise to pay a bit of attention to what happens on the Bush trip to this volatile region. One of them will inherit what the president accomplishes or fails to accomplish on his mission to re-boot the peace process.

Wrapping up separate talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Bush optimistically said he believed the two sides would sign a peace treaty before he leaves office. One senior official hinted that the president overstated peace prospects because he was enthusiastic about his conversations with the key players. He sounded much more realistic as he read a prepared statement later in the day. He pointed to "painful political concessions" for each side. He bluntly used a word that's a hot button term for the Israelis, "occupation" to describe their current control of land that the Palestinians want for a future state. He sympathizes with Israel's security concerns. He warned that no agreement or Palestinian state would be based on terror.

The day saw the president's first visit to the West Bank. At a Ramallah news conference with Abbas, the president stood under a portrait of a grinning Yasser Arafat. The meeting took place not far from Arafat's tomb. The president always made a very public point of shunning Arafat. Ironically he came closer to Arafat in death than he ever did when the Palestinian chief was alive.

There were other reminders of Arafat and the history of strained U.S.-Palestinian relations. The Bush-Abbas meeting took place at the dreary concrete Muqata compound where the late Palestinian leader was often besieged by Israeli forces because Israel blamed him for terror attacks.

Palestinian security forces had the area on tight lock-down. People were ordered to stay away from their balconies and windows. Reporters who traveled to Ramallah on buses with thick bullet-resistant windows saw no civilians on streets that were lined with security officers. U.S. Secret Service agents wearing trench coats on this cold, foggy day were a sharp contrast to the Palestinians in dark fatigues. Snipers could be seen on rooftops. Of course there was also unseen security in the zone that's on a State Department travel advisory list. That fog forced the White House to abandon plans for the president to chopper from Jerusalem to Ramallah. From his limousine, the president could see a desolate scene.

The route took him past the controversial towering Israeli security wall and Israeli settlements. A banner at one of the projects said: "Hands off Jerusalem."

After the news conference, the president flew to the little West Bank town of Bethlehem. He toured the centuries-old Church of the Nativity, site of what is believed to be the birthplace of Christ. He entered through the low "Door of Humility." Accompanied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush walked down steep stone steps to the grotto beneath the church altar. The president called it "a moving moment." Manger Square was filled with the sounds of faith; tolling church bells and the Muslim call to prayer. But the modern-day conflict intruded on the scene.

A huge banner in the square proclaimed, "No Peace With Settlements."

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    Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.