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Bush in Israel to Start Middle East Trip


President Bush is in Israel to begin a five-day trip to the Middle East. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, the president is hoping for progress on efforts to resolve the Israeli - Palestinian dispute.

An Israeli military honor guard welcomed the president and Mrs. Bush to Tel Aviv. He is here to help celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary and hopes to encourage faltering talks on the creation of a separate Palestinian state.

White House officials say the president is still optimistic that the outline of such a state can be concluded before he leaves office in January.

Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Mr. Bush in Jerusalem and said some of the obstacles to peace may soon fade.

"I think before you leave office you will see a change of guards here in the Middle East. What looks today so gloomy may be the last effort of some very extremist groups to remain alive," he said.

President Peres sees the decline of the militant group Hezbollah, which he says is destroying neighboring Lebanon, and Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip and Mr. Peres says is postponing the creation of a Palestinian state.

President Bush says a separate state would give Palestinians a choice between more violence under Hamas and a more stable future under Fatah, which controls the West Bank.

"We will continue to work toward a vision where people who are just reasonable and want a chance to live at peace with Israel have that opportunity, and at the same time speak clearly about the forces of terror who murder innocent people to achieve their political objectives and how the world must stand against them," said Mr. Bush.

Nathan Brown directs Middle East studies at George Washington University. He says a divided Palestinian authority is blocking progress toward a separate state because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not speak for all Palestinians.

"There simply is not a unified viable, Palestinian leadership, so how do you make a deal if there is nobody who can really sign on the dotted line delivering the Palestinian side," said Brown.

Progress toward a two-state solution is also slowed by the political weakness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who is currently under investigation for political corruption.

The prime minister denies the allegations and says he will resign if indicted.

"His political obituary has been written many times before and it is premature to conclude that he will be forced from office," said John Alterman, who directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research group in Washington. "But it is a fantasy to think that Ehud Olmert can make difficult and far-reaching diplomatic concessions when his political survival is under severe threat. In fact, the incentives are for Olmert to make apparent progress for peace, but not to conclude a peace deal that would alienate vital supporters."

White House officials do not expect any major breakthroughs on this trip but argue there has been halting progress between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators since they resumed talks following the president's Middle East summit in the United States last November.

Mr. Bush will meet separately with President Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. During this trip, he will also meet with Saudi King Abdallah, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Jordanian King Abdullah, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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