Bush to make first trip to Israel, West Bank

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President George W. Bush will make his first trip to Israel and the West Bank in January, hoping to help forge a peace deal before he leaves office one year later, his spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The January 8-16 voyage will also take him to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to promote talks launched at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, late last month, said Dana Perino.

The 44-country gathering culminated with an Israeli-Palestinian commitment to restart stalled talks with an eye on creating an independent Palestinian state by late 2008 — roughly one month before Bush’s successor takes over.

The trip comes as the US president, weighed down by the unpopular Iraq war, has sought to confront charges that he has kept the six-decade Middle East conflict at arm’s length during his nearly seven years in office.

Bush visited Israel as governor of Texas but has not been there since taking the oath of office in January 2001. It will be the first visit there by a sitting US president since Bill Clinton went in December 1998.

Bush will look to “facilitate” the new talks, discuss recent events in Iraq as well as “the challenges presented by Iran,” and economic and security ties between Washington and its Arab allies, said Perino.

In Jerusalem, the president will meet with Israel’s President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and will hold talks in the West Bank with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad, she said.

Bush, often seen as backing Israel’s interests to the hilt, was not scheduled to call leaders from both sides together or to seek a specific “concession on one side or the other,” said Perino.

She also flatly ruled out any talks between Bush and leaders of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which won a majority in 2006 parliamentary elections and is pledged to Israel’s destruction, and has ruled the Gaza Strip for the past six months.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization, he is not going to be talking with them,” the spokeswoman told reporters.

The June takeover by Hamas effectively split the Palestinian territories in half, with Hamas ruling Gaza and Abbas’s Western-backed Palestinian Authority confined to the West Bank.

Bush’s only trip to the region with the express purpose of Middle East peace-making was in 2003, when he met with Arab allies in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and attended a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas, who was then Palestinian prime minister.

In an interview after the Annapolis conference, Bush played down the importance of the US president traveling to the region, saying “going to a region in itself is not going to unstuck negotiations.

“This idea that somehow you are supposed to travel and therefore good things are going to happen is just not realistic,” he told CNN.

Major differences remain over core issues like the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

And Israel has said it would not implement any future peace deal before the Palestinians put an end to attacks, including nearly daily rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Bush hoped “to keep the discussions going, to show the commitment and to remind the world that this is a moment that has presented itself, and it’s time for everyone to seize the opportunity to make sure that the Palestinians and the Israelis are supported,” said Perino.

She noted the just-completed donors conference in Paris that netted 7.4 billion dollars (5.15 billion euros) in aid pledges for the Palestinians — money Washington says will go to Abbas and Fayyad, not Hamas.

Perino’s announcement came after US General James Jones, overseeing security issues in the revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, met senior Israeli officials on Tuesday on his first visit since being appointed to the post after the Annapolis conference.