US President George W. Bush will make his first trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank next month to push Israel and the Palestinians toward peace and try to write his own chapter in the annals of Middle East diplomacy.
On a nine-day trip beginning on Jan. 8, Bush plans to stop in Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It will be Bush's first presidential visit to each of the countries, except Egypt.
Middle East peacemaking has been on the back burner during most of Bush's presidency, but he emerged from a high-stakes conference in Annapolis, Maryland, last month re-energized about assisting Israel and the Palestinians in forming an independent Palestinian homeland. The trip is aimed at helping the two sides gain traction in talks that got under way earlier this month.
"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," Bush spokesperson Dana Perino said on Tuesday.
"In addition to that, the president wants to help try to increase Israeli and Arab reconciliation," she said.
Bush will focus the leaders on finding a long-term, sustainable peace, although it remained unclear whether he would engage in detailed negotiations. He is scheduled to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. No three-way meeting is planned.
"The important thing is for the leaders to keep their eye on the big picture and to work with their staffs -- and trust their staffs -- who are going to work out these details," Perino said.
"And the president can help facilitate those discussions. I do not anticipate, although we can let you know as we get closer, whether there would be detailed discussions about a concession on one side or the other," she said.
The White House said the trip will also be an opportunity to reaffirm US commitment to the security of its allies in the Middle East, especially the Gulf nations, and work with them to combat terrorism and extremism. Iraq, Iran, regional security and economic ties also will be discussed on the trip.
In Jerusalem, Bush will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and in the West Bank he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He will not meet with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in elections in June.
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