President Bush, trying to nurture fragile peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, will make his first trip to Israel and the West Bank next month as part of a nine-day swing through the Middle East.
Bush also will visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He will leave Washington on Jan. 8 and return on Jan. 16. Egypt is the only country on the itinerary that Bush has visited before.
While Middle East peacemaking has been on the back burner during most of Bush's presidency, his administration hosted a high-stakes conference last month in Annapolis, Md., to encourage talks between Israel and the Palestinians on an independent Palestinian homeland. He left energized about helping the Palestinians and Israelis find a way to live peacefully as neighbors and writing a chapter for himself in the book of Middle East diplomacy.
Asked whether Bush will engage in detailed negotiating during his tour, White House press secretary Dana Perino said: "I do not anticipate — although we can let you know as we get closer — whether there will be detailed discussions about concessions."
She said Bush wants the leaders to keep their eye on finding a way to achieve a long-term, sustainable peace.
Perino said Bush currently is scheduled to have bilateral sessions, not a three-way meeting, with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. She said Bush's role will be to pull the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together, "just like he did in Annapolis."
The White House said the trip also will be an opportunity to reaffirm the United States' commitment to the security of allies in the Middle East, especially with Gulf nations, and work with them to combat terrorism and extremism.
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. The president will then travel to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Bush: U.S. can step up its role
Bush says these conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories now are ripe for a more aggressive U.S. role: Abbas and Olmert agreed at their U.S.-sponsored meeting in Annapolis, Md., to renew peace talks, a unifying fight is under way 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 achieving a peace agreement is far from a reality. 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.
The Islamic militant group Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in elections in June, splitting the Palestinian territory into two territories: Gaza, run by Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by Abbas and his Fatah movement. This has complicated U.S. interaction with the Palestinians, because the United States and Israel regard Hamas as a terror group and refuse to deal with it.
Since Hamas wrested control from Abbas' Fatah forces, Gaza's 1.5 million residents have been virtually cut off from the world. Unemployment has risen to about 50 percent, forcing poverty up to 75 percent.
In a boost to the Palestinian government, the world on Monday pledged $7.4 billion in aid during the next three years to support Abbas' government. Abbas used the donors' conference in Paris to urge Israel to remove roadblocks quickly, stop building its separation barrier in the West Bank and freeze settlement expansion "without exceptions."
The first round of peace talks had been overshadowed by Israel's decision to expand a Jewish neighborhood, built on war-won land on the outskirts of Jerusalem. That meant the United States scaled back previous aid plans for fear of inadvertently funding Hamas.