The United States said Tuesday that reaching a Mideast peace agreement within the next eight months "might be improbable but it's not impossible," cautioning that no major breakthroughs are expected when President Bush arrives in Israel on Wednesday.
Bush will attend ceremonies in Jerusalem marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. He also will go to Saudi Arabia where he promises to press King Abdullah to increase oil production to ease soaring costs on consumers. Bush made a similar plea in January but it was ignored.
The president's final stop will be at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where he will meet over two days with a handful of leaders: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Jordan's King Hussein II and Iraqi leaders. Bush also is scheduled to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora but that is in doubt now after clashes between the U.S.-backed government in Beirut and Hezbollah-led opposition.
Bush, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said the United States cannot impose peace in the Middle East.
"I will come not as somebody who demands, but somebody who encourages," Bush said. He said, "I'm not running for the Nobel Peace Prize; I'm just trying to be a guy to use the influence of the United States to move the process along."
Bush said the peace negotiations would not be derailed by the corruption probe of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the fifth investigation into Olmert's conduct since he became prime minister two years ago. Olmert has said he will resign if indicted.
"This is not an Olmert plan; this is a plan of a government," Bush told Haaretz.
"It's a legal matter inside the system, the system will deal with it. ... And having said that, my relations with the prime minister have been nothing but excellent," Bush said. "I found him to be an honest guy. He loves his family, he's easy to talk to, he's a strategic thinker. And so we'll see what happens."
Negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials are being conducted in secret. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was "a misperception that not that much is going on in the political negotiations."
Her language was tempered, however. "I'm also a big believer that nothing is really impossible," she said in an interview conducted Monday and aired Tuesday on CBS' "The Early Show." "It might be improbable but it's not impossible."
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday that the two sides "have been doing a lot of good work behind the scenes, out of the glare of the spotlight and away from the microphones, which has helped them make some halting progress."
" It's sluggish, that's true," she said. "They have very complex issues to deal with, with decades of conflict that have built up. And if this was easy it would have been solved a long time ago."
Echoing Rice, Perino said, "I would put it this way ... while it's exceedingly difficult, it's not impossible." She said the U.S. did not anticipate any major breakthroughs this week but that Bush believes his one-on-one meetings are the best way to make progress.