Bush to visit Middle East in January

U.S. President George W. Bush, seeking a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians before he leaves office, will visit the Middle East in early January, the White House said. 


“”The president will go to the Middle East region in early January. Details to come,”” said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who declined to confirm Israeli media reports that Bush would go to Israel.

The announcement came one week after Bush announced at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to restart negotiations with the goal of creating a Palestinian state by late 2008.

The daily Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot cited sources in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office as saying that Bush would arrive in Israel on January 9, but that it was unclear whether the U.S. president would meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas or visit nearby countries.

The daily said that the visit was arranged during Olmert’s visits to the White House last week around the Annapolis conference.

If Bush were to go to Israel, it would be his first visit there as president, and his first since traveling there as Texas governor in 1998. Bush leaves office in January 2009.

The last visit to Israel by a sitting U.S. president was by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, in December 1998.

Bush has drawn fire over the past seven years for keeping the Middle East peace process at arms length, amid accusations that he has not been personally involved enough in helping the nearly six-decade conflict.

But the U.S. president counters that the conditions now are right for resuming negotiations, pointing to heightened Arab interest as well as Israeli and Palestinian leaders whom he says are committed to making peace.

Bush’s only trip to the region with the express purpose of Middle East peace-making was in 2003, when he met with Arab allies in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and attended a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas, who was then Palestinian prime minister.

In an interview after the Annapolis conference, Bush played down the importance of the U.S. president traveling to the region, saying “”going to a region in itself is not going to unstuck negotiations.

“”This idea that somehow you are supposed to travel and therefore good things are going to happen is just not realistic,”” he told CNN.

Major differences remain over core issues like the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

And on Tuesday, Israel said it had invited bids to build more than 300 new housing units in annexed east Jerusalem, the first settlement expansion since the revival of peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians slammed the move as an attempt to undermine the renewed peace drive which was officially launched after a seven-year hiatus at Annapolis.

The announcement of Bush’s visit came after a week of potentially critical developments in U.S. relations with the troubled region.


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