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Bush to visit Mideast in January, officials say

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush will visit the Mideast in early January as he presses the Israelis and Palestinians to resume long-stalled peace talks and forge an elusive agreement for an independent Palestinian homeland.

The White House would not disclose details of Bush’s itinerary, but an Israeli television station said he will go to Israel for the first time in his presidency.

“The president believes now is an appropriate time to visit the region,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

Last week, the Bush administration hosted a high-profile Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md., where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told international backers and skeptical Arab neighbors that they were ready to resume talks. The three days of talks ended in the Rose Garden.

Bush has held Mideast peacemaking at arms’ length for most of his nearly seven years in office but 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.

Israel’s Channel 2 TV reported Tuesday that Bush would focus on Israel-Palestinian peace talks on his visit but also would discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Other Israeli media outlets reported the Bush visit would take place Jan. 9.

Big challenges ahead
Fundamental differences 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. And achieving a peace agreement is far from a reality.

Israel said Tuesday it is in a disputed east Jerusalem neighborhood, drawing Palestinian condemnations that the move is undermining the newly revived peace talks.

Palestinian officials appealed to the U.S. to block the project, but Israel says a pledge to halt settlement activity does not apply anywhere in the holy 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.

Israel’s announcement about the new homes comes amid rising Israeli frustration over almost daily rocket attacks on Israel by Islamic militants in Gaza. Israel has pledged to press ahead with its campaign against the Gaza militants, saying that by nightfall Tuesday, 21 rockets and mortars had been fired on Israel, bringing the 12-month total to over 2,000.

Negotiating teams were to hold their first session in the region on Dec. 12, and Olmert and Abbas plan to continue 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.