President Bush heads to the Middle East this week to encourage Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and strengthen ties with Gulf states. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports it will be one of the longest and most ambitious trips of his presidency.

The trip follows up on the U.S. sponsored Mideast conference held in November in Annapolis, Maryland.

President Bush says his goal is to keep the momentum going.

"This is a region of great strategic importance to the United States, and I am looking forward to my visit," said Mr. Bush.

The trip will mark his first visit to Israel and the West Bank as president, followed by stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The work will begin almost immediately after his arrival Wednesday in Jerusalem, with a series of meetings with Israeli leaders. The next day, there will be similar talks with the Palestinian side in Ramallah - the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

President Bush says he knows the peace process is difficult, and hard choices are required on both sides.

"It will require tough decisions on complex questions. But I am optimistic about the prospects," he said. "And I will make clear that America is deeply committed to helping both parties realize the historic vision we share: two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

The president says he will seek support for the peace process in the Arab states on his tour. He says he also wants to talk to their leaders about the importance of bolstering the young democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need for a unified stand on Iran.

White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley predicts everywhere he goes in the region there will be one common theme that the threat posed by extremists and terrorists must be overcome.

"I think the main thing that the president can bring is a message of hope for the region, a commitment to finding a way towards supporting those who support freedom and democracy and justice in the region," said Hadley.

But some observers wonder just how effective an American president with only one year left in office can be in the Middle East.

"The odds are very strong that the most this administration can do is leave a legacy for the next administration," said security affairs expert Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.  He says Mideast leaders are keeping a close watch on the U.S. election process.

Cordesman adds the goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of the Bush presidency is likely to prove elusive.

"It Is good to talk about 2008; we certainly should not abandon the goal," he added. "But I think the reality is much more probable that this process will move well into the next administration if it succeeds."

Cordesman says dramatic breakthroughs are unlikely on this trip. But he stresses that does not mean President Bush should stay home. He says leaders in the region do not expect immediate solutions, but need to know the president is engaged.

"What really is important is they know the president is involved, that there is an opportunity to express politely their complaints and concerns, that there is the ability at least to move forward in limited areas, a symbolic accommodation," continued Cordesman. "And I am sure we will see some of those to ease some of the visible tensions between the United States and their own publics. And this kind of contact, if it is well managed and it does not make excessive demands, is very constructive."

In a series of interviews in the days prior to his departure from Washington, President Bush said he is going to the Middle East because he believes conditions are, as he put it, ripe for peace. During a session with al-Hurra, the U.S. government's Arabic-language satellite television network, he was asked how he hopes to be remembered in the region.

"I hope they remember me as the guy who was willing to fight extremists who murdered the innocent to achieve political objectives, and at the same time had great faith in the average citizen of the Middle East to self-govern," said Mr. Bush.

The president acknowledged he is not popular in parts of the region. But he said he hopes people see his vision for the future is one of peace.