WASHINGTON, Jan 8 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush heads for 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, last 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 U.S. foe 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, Maryland, to try to reach a two-state deal in 2008.
"I am optimistic about the prospects," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
But doubts remain about the seriousness of his commitment, his ability to act as an even-handed broker and his chance of succeeding where so many of his predecessors have failed.
Also uncertain is whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have enough clout to close a deal, let alone implement one.
For Bush, who had disdained Bill Clinton's failed peace effort 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.
CLIMATE FOR TRIP SOURED
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 on Wednesday for talks with Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres and then to the occupied West Bank on Thursday to meet Abbas in Ramallah.
But the climate has already soured. The Palestinians are 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 that have defied solution for decades, it will require direct, sustained presidential engagement.
Bush has made clear, however, that 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.
Many analysts think it might be of little use anyway since Bush would be dealing with politically weak leaders. With Abbas effectively governing only the West Bank, it is doubtful he could make any deal stick. Olmert has seen his popularity sink since the 2006 Lebanon war, and his ruling coalition is shaky.
Bush will also make stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to press Arab allies to help rein in Iran.
His task is made harder by a U.S. intelligence report that Iran stopped its nuclear arms program in 2003, contradicting Bush's earlier assertions Tehran was actively pursuing a bomb.
Also, anti-U.S. sentiment runs high in the Arab world because of the Iraq war, and feeling prevails that the United States is biased in favor of Israel against the Palestinians.
Bush in his travels must compete for attention with the intensifying 2008 presidential campaign at home. The crucial New Hampshire primary vote is on Tuesday. Many in the Middle East are also turning their focus to Bush's successor. (Editing by Eric Walsh)
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