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Israelis, Palestinians Largely Skeptical That President Bush Can Prod Peace Process

President George W. Bush touches down in Israel on Wednesday, the first stop on his Mideast tour that will also take him to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mr. Bush says the purpose of his visit is to move Israelis and Palestinians closer to a peace agreement by the end of the year, that will eventually result in a democratic viable Palestinian state. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem that since his last visit to the region in January, skepticism has grown in both Israel and the Palestinian territories about whether Mr. Bush can accomplish his goal.

It has been less than a year since Mr. Bush convened his Annapolis Mideast Peace Conference where he got pledges from both Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement by the end of this year. Since then the goals have been scaled back to what is being described as a framework agreement - perhaps dealing with the future borders of a Palestinian state - but even that objective seems distant.

Reuvan Hazan who teaches political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University says Mr. Bush may have run out of time to achieve his goals.

"The President of the United States might want to prod the process forward but seriously he has come to this realization too little too late," Hazan said. "He waited until his last year of eight years. He waited until he lost both houses of Congress - and we are on the verge of the next election in the United States. This is not how you can really change age-old hostilities in the Middle East. "

In the Palestinian territories the view is even bleaker. Aides to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, have talked openly of dismantling the Palestinian Authority because of lack of progress in talks with the Israelis - a move that would effectively end the Oslo Peace Process begun 15 years ago. Hani al-Masri, is a Palestinian journalist who runs the Bada'el Media Research Center in Ramallah. He says many Palestinians have now come to believe they are worse off than before the Annapolis Conference last year.

"After Annapolis, most Palestinians supported the negotiations," Al-Masri noted. "Now most Palestinians are asking Abu Mazen to stop these negotiations. Israel has used these negotiations to cover military aggression, increase settlements etcetera. It is not a peace process, it is a process without peace."

Hani al-Masri says Mr. Abbas's inability to get Israeli concessions in the talks so far has also strengthened Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip.

"Before Annapolis Hamas was very weak after its steps in Gaza. But after Annapolis, when the Palestinians see no progress Hamas now has more and more strength," he said.

If Mr. Abbas has been weakened, so has Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who now faces a potentially career-ending criminal probe involving allegations of bribery by an American businessman, who contributed to political campaigns when Mr. Olmert was Mayor of Jerusalem.

Danny Rubenstein, a columnist for Israel's Haaretz newspaper says Mr. Olmert's cabinet colleagues, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are now politically stronger than he is. He says that could make it difficult for the prime minister to make any concessions to the Palestinians.

"He is weak vis-à-vis his partners in the coalition," Rubenstein said. "Which means Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni is much stronger and that is a problem because if the prime minister is weak he cannot make crucial decisions and he needs to do that in the coming weeks."

Mr. Bush is coming to Israel to celebrate the country's 60th anniversary. He does not plan to travel to the Palestinian territories or even meet with Mr. Abbas until Saturday, when he convenes a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Palestinians have criticized the President's travel plans, but Reuvan Hazan of Hebrew University says Israelis view Mr. Bush as a leader they can trust, and that gives him political capital that no Israeli leader has.

"Most Israelis still support President Bush," said Hazan. "They see the world somewhat differently than people in the United States at least when it comes to the threats in the Middle East; be they Iraq in the past and Iran currently; the events that are taking place in Lebanon; the fact that Hamas is endangering the Palestinian Authority. Therefore when we see a president that is willing to use the United States' power as the policeman of the world, as the leader of democracy, then Israelis understand that this leadership is very necessary in this part of the world."

And because of that Mr. Bush will receive an extremely warm welcome from Israelis. A welcome that just might translate into a willingness to heed Mr. Bush's call to make tough decisions in the coming months, before his term ends, that could move both sides closer to a peace agreement.