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Bush Heads to Middle East Tuesday


U.S. President George Bush heads to the Middle East Tuesday for a five-day trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns looks at what the president hopes to accomplish.

President Bush returns to the region hoping to build on the latest round of Israel-Palestinian peace efforts that he began last year with a conference outside Washington.

"Today, Palestinians and Israelis each understand that helping the other to realize their aspirations is key to realizing their own aspirations. Both require an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state," he said.

This two-state solution is the centerpiece of the president's strategy, and he wants the boundaries of a Palestinian state defined before he leaves office in January. But Palestinians are divided between a Fatah government in the West Bank and a Hamas government in Gaza.

The United States and Israel will not negotiate with Hamas, which both countries have labeled a terrorist group.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told President Bush earlier this year that any peace deal must include all Palestinians.

"There will be no peace unless terror is stopped, and terror will have to be stopped everywhere," he said. "We made it clear to the Palestinians; they know it, and they understand that Gaza must be a part of the package."

President Bush met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in advance of this trip to find out how he might best help advance the peace process. The Palestinian leader made clear the challenges ahead.

"I cannot say that the road to peace is paved with flowers," he said. "It is paved with obstacles, but together we will work very hard in order to eliminate those obstacles and achieve peace."

Israeli and Palestinian talks have so far made little progress. U.S. National Security Advisor Steve Hadley says there has been some movement toward a Palestinian state, which he says will open the door for peace.

"At that point, President Abbas will be able to go to the people in Gaza and say, you have a choice: You can have the kind of life that you have under the oppression, really, of Hamas - and as we all know how difficult the situation is for a Palestinian in Gaza - or you can be part of a Palestinian state, which is what we want and what Palestinians want," he said.

John Alterman directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research group in Washington. He says the president is rushing to diplomacy at a time when the politics for successful diplomacy are missing.

"It's hard to remember a less auspicious time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacemaking than right now," he noted. "The politics on the ground are absolutely miserable. U.S. power and influence are at low ebb in the region. The Bush administration is beset by challenges - the combination of a faltering economy, persistent difficulties in Iraq, and a growing threat from Iran - all at a time that the president's popularity is at historical low, and his administration is settling more and more into lame duck status."

Nathan Brown directs Middle East studies at George Washington University. He says President Bush will be meeting Israeli and Palestinian sides that are still far apart.

"They may have inched a little bit closer, but there are still wide gaps," he said. "Second is that there are facts on the ground in terms of a network of Israeli settlements and roads and construction that are very, very deeply entrenched. They can be undone, but at a very high political price to an Israeli government, and you've got a weak one right now."

During his trip, President Bush will meet separately with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He will also try to increase regional involvement in the process in separate talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi King Abdallah, and Jordanian King Abdullah.

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