JERUSALEM: President George W. Bush set out US expectations for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, saying the two sides need to get serious about talks starting right now . As Bush prepared to visit Sunni Arab allies beginning Friday, he asked Arabs to reach out to the Jewish state.
Making the most extensive Mideast trip of his presidency, Bush was visiting Kuwait, the tiny oil-rich nation his father fought a war over and one of only two invited guests to skip the splashy Annapolis, Maryland, rollout Bush hosted for the new US-backed talks. The other no-show was Iraq.
Concluding his visit to Israel on Friday, Bush visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial where he was greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres. Later, Bush was to visit holy sites in the northern part of Israel.
Bush closed two days of formal talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday with a stern summation of his bottom lines for a peace pact he said should be completed this year. Although the goals and terms were not markedly different from past US statements, it was an unusually detailed list of benchmarks and tough on close ally Israel.
Bush came away with no significant breakthroughs after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but the White House said Bush did not expect dramatic progress while he was here.
The nascent peace talks have not made much headway, with old disputes about land and terrorism clouding the negotiators early meetings. US officials say Bush and his aides will be back to check up on the progress from here, and goad both sides. Bush promised to be a pain when necessary.
Bush wants Arab states to offer support to Abbas in his internal fight with Palestinian insurgents and give him the regional support necessary to sustain any peace deal he could work out with Israel. Arabs came in force to Bush’s Annapolis summit, and he had flattered them with frequent references to an Arab draft for peace that, like past US efforts, did not stick. Close Arab allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia had urged Bush to get more directly involved in Mideast peacemaking, saying the Palestinian plight seeded other conflicts and poisoned publicopinion throughout the region.
Those states and others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude since Annapolis, and Bush’s visit is partly meant to nudge them off the fence.
The peace effort is the centerpiece of Bush’s eightday tour, but the balance of the trip is likely to focus as much on the uncertain ambitions of Shia Iran. Bush’s Sunni allies are nervous about the rise of Iran in their midst, and the threat its adherents may one day pose to their authoritarian regimes, but also are sometimes at odds with the United States over the best strategy to address or confront Tehran.
Some Arab states are worried by a new US intelligence estimate downgrading the near-term threat that Iran will build nuclear weapons. Although Bush and other US officials have said Iran remains a threat, allies with less powerful militaries fear that the United States is taking itself out of a potential fight. Bush says he wants to solve the Iran puzzle through diplomacy but takes no options off the table. In Kuwait, Bush was meeting Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, emir of the wealthy nation that sits at the top of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is flanked by large and powerful neighbors Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran to the east. While in Kuwait, Bush was getting an update on Iraq’s security and political status from his top military commander there, Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker