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Bush Arrives in Middle East


President Bush has arrived in Israel - the first stop on a Middle East journey designed to bolster the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and foster unity on Iran. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports Mr. Bush immediately went to work, following a formal arrival ceremony at Israel's main airport.

Israel's leaders were waiting at Ben Gurion Airport, as Air Force One taxied to a stop.

They formed a long welcoming line as George W. Bush set foot on Israeli soil for the first time in his presidency.

He spoke of the strong ties between the United States and Israel. He says the source of that strength is a shared belief in the power of human freedom.

"We will do more than defend ourselves. We will seek lasting peace. We see a new opportunity for peace here in the Holy Land and for freedom across the region," said Mr. Bush.

Like President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert kept his comments at the arrival ceremony broad in nature, avoiding any direct reference to issues related to the peace process.

"From the very beginning, your policies have reflected a basic understanding of the challenges facing Israel in this troubled region and a solid commitment to our national security," he said.

It fell to Israeli President Shimon Peres, Israel's largely ceremonial head of state, to offer some tough talk. He said President Bush is right to urge the world to pay attention to the threat posed by Iran.

"We take your advice not to underestimate the Iranian threat. Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self-defense," said Peres.

President Bush, Prime Minister Olmert and President Peres wasted no time getting down to business - launching talks shortly after the arrival ceremony.

Thursday, President Bush will travel from Jerusalem on to Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, to meet separately with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

At a meeting in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas agreed to begin negotiations on the thorniest issues blocking a peace agreement. Among them: the borders of a future Palestinian state, competing claims to Jerusalem, and the status of Palestinian refugees.

Concerns about rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza and Israeli settlement activity have created tensions since the American-led Annapolis Mideast conference in November. President Bush is expected to use his trip to encourage both sides to look at the big picture and keep focused on the need for peace.

During the flight to Israel, White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told reporters traveling with the president that Mr. Bush is not coming to the Middle East to interject himself into the negotiations. He said, instead, the president wants both sides to stay focused, and look beyond what he called "a lot of distractions."

Hadley also talked about the recent incident involving Iranian vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. He said Iran must be careful and realize there will be consequences to bear if they again menace American boats in international waters.

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