TEL AVIV, (Reuters) – George W. Bush arrived on Wednesday on his first visit to Israel as U.S. president and said he saw a new opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
After shunning a hands-on role in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy for much of a presidency that began in 2001, Bush now hopes to spur negotiations towards a lasting peace that has eluded so many of his predecessors.
“We see a new opportunity for peace here in the holy land and for freedom across the region,” Bush said during a welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport. “We will discuss our deep desire for security and freedom and for peace throughout the Middle East.” However, no breakthroughs are expected in three days of talks following up on a U.S.-hosted international conference in November that yielded promises from both sides to try to forge a two-state agreement by the end of 2008.
On the first leg of a week-long Middle East tour, Bush was greeted on arrival by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport.
Peres opened the visit by telling Bush immediately at the welcoming ceremony of Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme — a concern shared with Washington: “Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self defence.”
Israeli officials say Iran, not the peace process, will be the focus of their leaders’ discussions with Bush.
Bush was to hold talks with the two Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, which has been decked out in U.S. flags in his honour and clamped under tight security. He meets Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. “What has to happen in order for there to be a peaceful settlement of a longstanding dispute is there to be … outlines of a state clearly defined,” Bush said at the White House before his departure.
Iran also looms large over Bush’s travels, which will include visits to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies he hopes to enlist in efforts to contain Tehran’s growing regional influence.
Accused for years of neglecting the Middle East’s most intractable conflict, Bush will try to nudge Olmert and Abbas forward in a fragile peace process relaunched at Annapolis, Maryland.
But analysts say chances are slim for a deal before Bush steps down in January 2009. Doubts remain about the seriousness of his commitment and his ability to act as an even-handed broker between close U.S. ally Israel and the Palestinians.
Bush has made clear he has no plans for the kind of sustained personal involvement he scorned after his predecessor, Bill Clinton, failed to achieve a peace accord in the twilight of his presidency.
Also uncertain is whether Olmert and Abbas, who on the eve of Bush’s visit agreed to begin talks on the thorniest issues, have enough clout to close a deal, let alone implement one.