Bush to make first presidential visit to Israel

United States President George Bush is to embark on a week-long tour of the Middle East in the new year to nudge Israelis and Palestinians towards an end to their decades-long conflict and to bolster an Arab coalition against Iran.

It will be the first time in his seven years as president that Bush will have visited Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Elaborate security planning is already under way in Israel and the Arab countries for the visit, which begins on January 8, given the level of hostility towards Bush in the Middle East over the Iraq war.

While the presence of Bush in the region will help to focus attention on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, his trip comes against a background of continued tension. This week, while the international community meeting in Paris was pledging billions of dollars in aid to the West Bank over the next three years, Israeli forces were attacking targets inside Gaza in response to rocket attacks.

The trip is partly a follow-up to a Middle East peace conference at the Annapolis naval base last month, which ended with vague promises to try to resolve the conflict by the end of 2008.

Announcing the trip schedule, the White House spokesperson, Dana Perino, said: ”Part of it is to continue to keep the discussions going, to show the commitment and to remind the world that this is a moment that has presented itself, and it’s time for everyone to seize the opportunity to make sure that the Palestinians and the Israelis are supported.”

But Perino said that she did not expect ”detailed discussions about a concession on one side or the other”. Nor is Bush planning to host joint talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

He will not meet any representatives of Hamas, which controls Gaza. ”Hamas is a terrorist organisation. He is not going to be talking with them,” Perino said, although he will meet the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement has also used suicide bombers against Israel.

After Israel and the West Bank, Bush is to visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the only country on the list he has visited before. He hosted a meeting of regional leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2003.

In an interview with the Austrian paper Die Presse published on Wednesday, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria expressed scepticism about the trip, given that Bush is in the final year of his presidency.

Assad, whose country has been technically at war with Israel since 1967, expressed cautious optimism, but added: ”It is perhaps too late to talk about peace in the last year of this US administration. It will be preoccupied with elections.”

Syria attended the Annapolis conference but is regarded by the Bush administration as a hostile state which supports terrorism.

The Israeli government has established a taskforce to prepare for Bush’s visit. At least 8 000 police officers will provide security for the visit. The main road from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem is to be blocked off on the day of his arrival, with traffic diverted elsewhere.

Bush, who went to Israel in 1998 as governor of Texas, had avoided visiting America’s closest ally until now, in part because he did not want to be drawn into attempting to negotiate a Middle East peace deal. At the outset of his presidency he expressed scorn for what he saw as the wasted efforts in the region of his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Bush will find a receptive audience in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states over his concerns about Iran’s increasing dominance in the region. Bush insists that Iran remains a potential threat to world peace in spite of a US intelligence analysis that it had stopped a nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

After publication of the intelligence report, Bush said that US policy towards Iran remained unchanged.

Iran continues to pursue the ability to produce highly enriched uranium, which the US and EU suspect is aimed at the country securing a nuclear weapon capability. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, in particular, are seeking US guarantees of support against Iran’s expanding influence in the region. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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