WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush headed to the Middle East on Tuesday, aiming to nurture Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in the face of deep skepticism while trying to rally Arab opposition to Iran.
Once wary of hands-on Middle East diplomacy, Bush will make his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank in a bid to shore up fragile negotiations aimed at forging a peace treaty by the end of the year.
The chances of a deal before Bush leaves office in January 2009 appear slim, and no breakthroughs are expected during three days of talks following up on an international conference he hosted in Annapolis, Maryland, in November.
But in Israel and Arab countries that Bush will visit during his weeklong tour, Iran and its growing regional influence will also loom large.
Bush hopes to enlist Arab support to help contain Iran, a goal underscored by a confrontation between American and Iranian vessels in the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend.
On the first leg of his trip, Bush will nudge Israelis and Palestinians to move forward in talks already bogged down in recriminations since their leaders pledged at Annapolis to try to reach a two-state deal in 2008.
“What has to happen in order for there to be a peaceful settlement of a long-standing dispute is ... outlines of a state clearly defined,” Bush said at the White House. “So that at some point in time, the Palestinians who agree that Israel ought to exist and agree that the state ought to live side-by-side with Israel in peace have something to be for.”
But doubts remain about the seriousness of Bush’s commitment, his ability to act as an even-handed broker and his chance of succeeding where so many predecessors have failed.
Also uncertain is whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who met in Jerusalem and agreed to begin peace talks on the thorniest issues, have enough clout to close a deal, let alone implement one.
For Bush, who disdained the failed peace effort of former President Bill Clinton in the twilight of his presidency, the underlying motive appears to be about using his waning months in office to shape a legacy not completely defined by the unpopular war in Iraq.
Critics accused Bush of neglecting the Middle East’s most intractable conflict during seven years in office. Now his trip is meant to show he is keeping his pledge to get involved.
Bush travels first to Jerusalem for talks with Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres and then to the occupied West Bank on Thursday to meet Abbas in Ramallah.
The Olmert-Abbas meeting was timed to smooth the way for Bush’s visit. The Palestinians have been upset over Jewish settlement expansion and Israel is threatening to escalate attacks on militants in Hamas-controlled Gaza in response to cross-border rocket fire.
Many analysts say that if Israelis and Palestinians are to resolve differences, it will require direct, sustained presidential engagement.
But Bush has made clear he has no intention of adopting what his administration once derided as Clinton’s “shoot the moon” approach to Middle East peacemaking.
Bush, who last visited Israel as Texas governor, has been vague about his trip’s objectives and has no plans even to hold a three-way meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Bush’s itinerary includes a stop in Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. He will also make stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to press Arab allies to help rein in Iran.
In the incident in the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian boats aggressively approached three U.S. Navy vessels and warned that the ships would explode, according to U.S. officials.
Bush said Iran had committed a “provocative act” and vowed to raise concerns about Tehran in talks with Arab allies. Tehran has played down the incident as nothing more than routine contact.
“Iran was a threat, Iran is a threat and Iran will continue to be a threat if they are allowed to learn how to enrich uranium,” Bush said.
Bush’s task in rallying opposition to Iran is made harder by a U.S. intelligence report that Iran stopped its nuclear arms program in 2003, contradicting his earlier assertions Tehran was actively pursuing a bomb.
Editing by Chris Wilson