WASHINGTON U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday called Israeli settlement expansion an "impediment" in revived peace efforts and urged the Jewish state to meet its pledge to dismantle unauthorized settler outposts.
In an interview with Reuters less than a week before his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank, Bush voiced optimism for securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of 2008, a goal set at last November's Annapolis conference that has been viewed with some skepticism.
Bush said he would use his trip to keep pressure on both sides, including making clear to Israelis his concern about Jewish settlement activity. Peace talks ahead of Bush's visit have been soured by disputes over continuing settlement construction on occupied land.
"I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is, that can be, you know, an impediment to success," he said. "The unauthorized outposts for example need to be dismantled, like the Israelis said they would do."
Bush also acknowledged that part of the reason for his January 8-16 Middle East trip is "absolutely" about efforts to contain Iran's influence in the region.
Bush said that on his trip, which starts in Israel and will include stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, he expects questions about a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last month that said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"I will clarify to them that the NIE means that Iran is still a danger," he said.
Bush's trip follows a U.S.-hosted conference last month in Annapolis, Maryland, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to try to forge a peace deal by the end of 2008.
Asked whether he would hold three-way talks with Abbas and Olmert during his visit, Bush said, "I don't know. It's not on the calendar now. But there will definitely be substantial talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians."
Bush's Middle East trip comes as his room for maneuver is limited by the unpopular Iraq war, now in its fifth year. Abbas and Olmert are also politically weak at home.
Bush's hands-off approach to Middle East peacemaking during almost seven years in office has raised doubts about his newfound commitment. His planned trip to the region appears intended to allay such concerns.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, editing by Patricia Wilson)