WASHINGTON – High gasoline prices and prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal headline Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to the Mideast, but fears about Iran's rising influence will be a key topic of his private talks at each stop.
Cheney left Sunday on a 10-day trip that includes visits to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Turkey. His trip coincides with the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which has tainted the U.S. image in the Mideast and changed the balance of power in the region.
Cheney is the latest top U.S. official to go the Mideast to coax Israel and moderate Palestinian leaders to move forward on a peace deal. Bush went to Israel and the West Bank in January. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just got back from a troubleshooting mission there, and Bush is to return in May. Sen. John McCain, the soon-to-be GOP presidential nominee, and other lawmakers are visiting Israel this week.
Bush, who relaunched formal peace talks last fall at a conference in Annapolis, Md., has turned a Mideast peace deal into a signature foreign policy goal for his remaining months in office. But violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel has hampered talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Bush has made clear that he wants Cheney to push both men to honor their obligations under the U.S.-backed road map, which calls for the Palestinians to disarm militants and for Israel to halt settlement construction. Last week, the Bush administration said Israel's recently announced plan to build hundreds of new Jewish homes in disputed areas of the West Bank and east Jerusalem was not helping move the peace plan along.
On Iraq, Cheney will highlight progress made since the president dispatched 30,000 additional U.S. troops there last summer to help secure the nation and give political leaders a chance to reconcile their differences.
The United States wants Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations to establish a diplomatic presence in Baghdad to help anchor the Iraqi government in the Arab world. In the meantime, the Bush administration feels there is no reason why trade, culture, economic and foreign ministers from the Arab world shouldn't go to Iraq and engage the new Iraqi government as they would others in the region.
It's unclear what Cheney will seek from Saudi Arabia about easing pressure on oil prices. When Bush visited Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in January, he urged the 13-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to boost their output to take pressure off soaring fuel prices at American pumps. But OPEC has since said it will maintain current production levels because crude supplies are plentiful and demand is expected to weaken in the second quarter.