Bush arrives in Israel as scandal clouds peace hopes

United States President George Bush arrived in the Middle East on Wednesday to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday and try to energise peace efforts complicated by a corruption scandal that could topple Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Bush, who faces deep doubt he can secure a deal between Israel and the Palestinians before leaving office in January, visits Jerusalem first, where a bribery investigation against Olmert is under way.

A smiling Olmert and his wife, Aliza, greeted the president and First Lady Laura Bush at a red-carpet ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport.

Olmert, fighting for his political survival, said on the eve of Bush’s second visit to the region this year that he and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had reached “understandings and points of agreement” on some issues.

But Palestinian officials were sceptical, and one noted that the two sides “still have a long way to go”.

With the clock ticking down on his administration, Bush is trying to salvage a foreign policy legacy encompassing more than the unpopular war in Iraq.

Olmert and Abbas agreed at a US-hosted conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November to try to reach a peace deal, including an agreement on Palestinian statehood, by year’s end.

Since then, talks have faltered over Israeli settlement expansion plans in the occupied West Bank and violence in and around the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where cross-border rocket fire has drawn a tough Israeli military response. - Reuters

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