WASHINGTON – President Bush will visit Israel and the West Bank next month as part of a nine-day trip intended to nurture peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Bush also will make stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He will leave Washington on Jan. 8 and return on Jan. 16.
While Mideast peacemaking has been on the back burner during most of his presidency, Bush last month hosted a high stakes conference in Annapolis, Md., to encourage talks between Israel and the Palestinians on an independent Palestinian homeland. He left energized about helping the Palestinians and Israelis find a way to live peacefully as neighbors — and write a chapter for himself in the book of Mideast diplomacy.
"This visit will follow up on the progress made at Annapolis in helping Israelis and Palestinians to advance their efforts toward peace and achievement of the president's vision of two democratic states living side-by-side in peace and security, as well as encourage Israeli-Arab reconciliation," White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.
"The trip will also be an opportunity to reaffirm the enduring commitment of the United States to the security of our allies in the Middle East, especially with the Gulf nations, and our close work with them to combat terrorism and extremism, promote freedom, and seek peace and prosperity in the region," she said.
In Jerusalem, Bush will meet with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and in the West Bank he will meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The president will then travel to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Bush says conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories now are ripe for a more aggressive U.S. role: Abbas and Olmert agreed in Annapolis to renew peace talks, there is a unifying fight against extremism fed by the Palestinian conflict, and the world understands the urgency of acting now.
Negotiating teams held their first session in the region on Dec. 12, but a peace agreement is far from a reality. Fundamental differences on these key issues have led to the collapse of previous peace efforts: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The Islamic militant group Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in elections in June, splitting control over Palestinian territory in two — the Gaza Strip is run by Hamas and the West Bank, by Abbas. This has complicated U.S. interaction with the Palestinians because the United States and Israel regard Hamas as a terror group and refuse to deal with it.
Since Hamas wrested control from Abbas' Fatah forces, Gaza's 1.5 million residents have been virtually cut off from the outside world. Unemployment has risen to about 50 percent, forcing poverty up to 75 percent.
In a boost to the Palestinian government, the world on Monday pledged $7.4 billion in aid during the next three years to support Abbas' government. Abbas used the donors' conference in Paris to urge Israel to remove roadblocks quickly, stop building its separation barrier in the West Bank and to freeze settlement expansion, "without exceptions."
The first round of peace talks had been overshadowed by Israel's decision to expand a Jewish neighborhood, built on war-won land on the outskirts of Jerusalem.