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Bush Begins Five-Day Mideast Tour

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This is the day that President Bush travels to Jerusalem. He'll be marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. The president will also be trying to make peace, which is why he will also travel to two of the regions Arab powers: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports on the president's effort to make progress before he runs out of time.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The bulk of President Bush's visit to Israel will revolve around the celebration of the establishment of the Jewish state. Among their activities, the president and First Lady will host a reception at an Israeli museum. They'll tour the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada, where in the first century A.D., hundreds of Jewish rebels killed their wives, children, then each other rather than become slaves to the Romans who were set to invade the fortress.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley says the trip is to demonstrate U.S. support of Israel. He describes the visit as a mix of symbolism and substance.

Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Adviser): Symbolism because it is a, obviously, a landmark event in the history of Israel, but also substance because it shows the president's and the United States' continuing commitment to the security of Israel.

NORTHAM: As part of that commitment, President Bush will continue to push for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in a conflict that has raged as long as Israel's existence. President Bush will see Prime Minister Ehud Olmert while in Israel, but will not see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas until later in the week, when President Bush goes to Egypt.

John Alterman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says when the Bush administration brokered the peace negotiations in Annapolis last fall, it likely hoped for more progress on a deal by this point.

Mr. JOHN ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): It now finds itself, very late in the game, beset by injured players, fatigue and poor field position.

NORTHAM: And, Alterman says, the administration is now playing against two clocks.

Mr. ALTERMAN: The first is its own, which runs out in January. And the second is the leadership clock in the Middle East. It believes it has in Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, two leaders with the desire to make peace. It does have that, but right now neither leader has the power to make peace.

NORTHAM: Prime Minister Olmert is in the middle of a bribery scandal that could force him to resign. President Abbas is also politically weak. He controls only the West Bank. Hamas holds power in Gaza. Erin David Miller with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars agrees that time is now short, and gaps between the two sides are enormous. Miller says U.S. credibility on the issue is also very low.

However, Miller says there are two complicated but hopeful signs of progress, neither of which is being orchestrated by the U.S. One is the ongoing discussions between Abbas and Olmert on the core issues.

Mr. ERIN DAVID MILLER (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): You've never had that before, an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian president who like trust one another, and/or having hours of discussion on Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security. And the other hopeful reality is you've got the Egyptians trying to broker an informal accommodation between the Israelis on one end and Hamas on the other.

NORTHAM: Miller says even if Olmert and Abbas only produce a framework agreement, the declaration of principles, it would still have an extremely positive affect. Miller says for that reason, the U.S. has to keep pushing both sides, even if it's unlikely a full peace deal will be reached by the end of the Bush administration's term in office.

Mr. MILLER: If it's smart and tries to support the Israelis and the Palestinians, they might, by year's end, get a declaration of principles, and be able to hand off to their Republican or Democratic successors a process that works. Because if they don't hand something off that works, the next president will walk away from this issue as quickly as George W. Bush walked away initially.

NORTHAM: Later in the week, President Bush will also meet with leaders from Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon to discuss other foreign policy crises that remain unresolved in the waning months of his administration.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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United States & World Morning Edition
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.