KUWAIT CITY – President Bush sought Arab support on Friday for a U.S.-backed Mideast peace deal, but the Bush administration said not to expect a "blinding flash" of Arab cooperation for the restarted Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
Secretary of Rice Condoleezza Rice, traveling with Bush, said it is unrealistic to expect Arab leaders to suddenly reach out to Israel, their historic enemy.
"Some of this will happen over time," Rice told reporters aboard Air Force One, en route to Kuwait. "There isn't going to be a blinding flash in any of this, not on this trip, not on the next trip. But this is a process that is moving forward."
"The Arab states took a big step in coming to Annapolis" where Bush brought together Israeli and Palestinian and other officials to launch the first peace negotiations in seven years, Rice said. She added that as talks move forward between Israelis and Palestinians, the "Arabs will do more and more."
Earlier during an emotional tour of Israel's Holocaust memorial, Bush stopped in front of an aerial photo of Auschwitz and told Rice that the U.S. should have bombed the death camp to stop the extermination of Jews there, the memorial's chairman said.
Rice said Bush's trip to the region and his return to Israel in May give both sides incentives to move ahead with the difficult discussions. She said progress from the negotiations would come slowly, and that the two sides would seem far apart at times.
Bush visited this tiny oil-rich nation his father fought a war over and one of only two invited guests to skip the splashy Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md., that Bush hosted for the new peace negotiations. Arriving to a ceremonial red-carpet welcome, Bush accepted a bouquet of flowers and greeted dignitaries as he began the next chapter of his eight-day journey to the troubled region.
Bush was meeting Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, emir of the wealthy nation that sits at the top of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is flanked by large and powerful neighbors Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran to the east. While in Kuwait, Bush also was getting an update on Iraq's security and political status from his top military commander there, Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.
Before the two began a private meeting, the Kuwaiti emir told Bush he was delighted to have the U.S. president in Kuwait. "We are equally delighted to see you working on issues that are very important to all of us here," Sheik Sabah said.
"Your highness, it's my honor. Thank you sir," Bush replied.
The president wants Arab states to throw support to Abbas in his internal fight with Palestinian militants and give him the regional support necessary to sustain any peace deal he could work out with Israel. Arabs came in force to Bush's Annapolis summit, and he had flattered them with frequent references to an Arab draft for peace that, like past U.S. efforts, did not stick.
Close Arab allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia had urged Bush to get more directly involved in Mideast peacemaking, saying the Palestinian plight seeded other conflicts and poisoned public opinion throughout the region. Those states and others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude since Annapolis, and Bush's visit to the region is partly meant to nudge them off the fence.
Earlier, in Tel Aviv, Bush said he would return to the Mideast in May to mark ally Israel's 60th anniversary and to continue pushing for a peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians. It was an indication that hopes to crown his final year in office by putting a personal stamp on peacemaking efforts.
"There's a good chance for peace and I want to help you," Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the airport here, where he boarded Air Force One, ending his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President, thank you very much for your invitation to come back. I'm accepting it now," Bush said on the tarmac.
During his two days of formal talks with Olmert, Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush laid out U.S. expectations, saying that the two sides needed to get serious talks started immediately. On his way to visit Sunni Arab allies, Bush said he'd would ask them to reach out to the Jewish state.
"I carry with me a message of optimism about the possibilities of a peace treaty," Bush said with the two Israeli leaders. "I will share with them my thoughts about you and President Abbas and the determination to work to see whether or not it's possible to come up with a peace treaty."
The nascent peace talks haven't made much headway, with old disputes about land and terrorism clouding the negotiators' early meetings.
After two days immersed in the intense and arcane world of Mideast peacemaking, Bush toured holy sites in northern Israel on Friday, listening as robed clerics read him biblical passages about Jesus' days of ministry there centuries ago.
Bush visited Capernaum, a site where Jesus is said to have performed miracles. The president gazed across the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is claimed to have walked on water. He toured the site of an ancient synagogue and joked and held hands with nuns outside the Church of the Beatitudes, a place where Jesus delivered his famed "Sermon on the Mount."
Asked how it felt to walk in Jesus' footsteps, Bush replied "Amazing experience."
During the visit, Bush was given a crystal statue inscribed with words from the sermon, recounted in Matthew Chapter 5: "Blessed are those who are peacemakers for they will be called children of God."
Archbishop Elias Shakur, the Greek Catholic clergyman who showed Bush around the site, said he asked him, "Did you come as a politician, as a leader of state, or as a pilgrim?"
"I came as a pilgrim," Bush said, according to Shakur.
Also earlier, Bush became misty-eyed as he toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The president, who first visited the memorial in 1998 when he was governor of Texas, was wearing a yarmulke as he rekindled an eternal flame and placed a red-white-and-blue wreath on a stone slab that covers ashes of Holocaust victims taken from six extermination camps.
Bush called the memorial a "sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it."
The peace effort is the centerpiece of Bush's eight-day tour, but the balance of the trip is likely to focus as much on the uncertain ambitions of Shiite Iran. Bush's Sunni allies are nervous about the rise of Iran in their midst, and the threat its adherents may one day pose to their authoritarian regimes, but also are sometimes at odds with the United States over the best strategy to address or confront Tehran.
Some Arab states are worried by a new U.S. intelligence estimate downgrading the near-term threat that Iran will build nuclear weapons. Although Bush and other U.S. officials have said Iran remains a threat, allies with less powerful militaries fear that the United States is taking itself out of a potential fight. Bush says he wants to solve the Iran puzzle through diplomacy but takes no options off the table.
In an interview broadcast Friday, Bush said there could well be a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, but it would be on the invitation of the Iraqi government. Asked on NBC's "Today" show whether that means U.S. troops would be in Iraq for at least another 10 years, Bush said, "It could easily be that. Absolutely."
During his visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial, Bush said the U.S. should have bombed the Auschwitz death camp to end the extermination of Jews there, a rare acknowledgment from a U.S. leader on an issue that has stirred deep controversy for decades.
The Allies had detailed reports about Auschwitz during the war from Polish partisans and escaped prisoners. But they chose not to bomb the camp, the rail lines leading to it, or any of the other Nazi death camps, preferring instead to focus all resources on the broader military effort.
Between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people were murdered at the infamous camp in Poland.
Bush twice had tears in his eyes during an hour-long tour of the museum, said Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev, who guided Bush through the exhibits.
Upon viewing an aerial shot of Auschwitz, taken during the war by U.S. forces, Bush called the ruling not to bomb it "complex." He then called over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's decision, clearly pondering the options before rendering an opinion of his own, Shalev told the Associated Press.
"We should have bombed it," Bush said, according to Shalev.
Tom Segev, a leading Israeli scholar of the Holocaust, said the Bush comment, which appeared spontaneous, marked the first time an American president had made this acknowledgment.
"It is clear now that the U.S. knew a lot about it," he said. "It's possible that bombing at least the railway to the camps may have saved the lives of the Jews of Hungary. They were the very last ones who were sent to Auschwitz at a time when everybody knew what was going on."
Bush, making the most extensive Mideast trip of his presidency, was accompanied on his tour of the museum by a small party that included Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
At the compound, overlooking a forest on Jerusalem's outskirts, Bush visited a memorial to the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust, featuring six candles reflected 1.5 million times in a hall of mirrors.
At the site's Hall of Remembrance, he heard a cantor chant a Jewish prayer for the dead. There, Bush, wearing a yarmulke, placed a red-white-and-blue wreath on a stone slab that covers ashes of Holocaust victims taken from six extermination camps. He also lit a torch memorializing the victims.
"I was most impressed that people in the face of horror and evil would not forsake their God. In the face of unspeakable crimes against humanity, brave souls — young and old — stood strong for what they believe," Bush said.
"I wish as many people as possible would come to this place. It is a sobering reminder that evil exists, and a call that when evil exists we must resist it," he said.
The memorial was closed to the public and under heavy guard Friday, with armed soldiers standing on top of some of the site's monuments and a police helicopter and surveillance blimp hovering in the air overhead.
It was Bush's second visit to the Holocaust memorial, a regular stop on the visits of foreign dignitaries. His first was in 1998, as governor of Texas. The last sitting U.S. president to visit was Bill Clinton in 1994.
In the memorial's visitors' book, the president wrote simply, "God bless Israel, George Bush."
Shalev then presented Bush with illustrations of the Bible drawn by the Jewish artist Carol Deutsch, who perished in the Holocaust.
Deutsch created the works while in hiding from the Nazis in Belgium. He was informed upon, and died in 1944 in the Buchenwald camp. After the war, his daughter Ingrid discovered that the Nazis had confiscated their furniture and valuables but had left behind a single item: a meticulously crafted wooden box adorned with a Star of David and a seven-branched menorah, containing a collection of 99 of the artist's illustrations of biblical scenes.
The originals are on display at Yad Vashem. The memorial recently decided to produce a special series of 500 replicas, the first of which was presented to Bush.
Debbie Deutsch-Berman, a Yad Vashem employee whose grandfather was Deutsch's brother, said she was proud that Bush would be given her relative's artwork.
"These are not just his paintings, they are his legacy, and the fact that they survived shows that as much as our enemies tried to destroy the ideas that these paintings embody, they failed," she said.