(AFP) – Jan 9, 2008
JERUSALEM (AFP) — US President George W. Bush said he saw a fresh opportunity for peace in the Middle East as he arrived in the region on Wednesday at the start of a landmark tour marked by escalating tensions with Iran.
With Israel on top security alert, Bush flew in for his first presidential visit to the Jewish state and Palestinian territories, seeking to score a foreign policy triumph in his last year in office by forging a long-elusive Middle East peace deal.
The White House lowered any expectations the trip would produce an early breakthrough, however, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley telling reporters on Bush's plane that the US "is not looking for big deliverables out of a trip of this sort".
Israel rolled out a full red carpet ceremony, with dignitaries welcoming the leader of its closest ally on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv when Air Force One touched down.
"We see a new opportunity for peace here in the Holy Land and for freedom across the region," declared Bush, who has pledged to advance peace talks with a view to creating a Palestinian state before the end of this year, his last as president.
Negotiations were relaunched amid great fanfare at a US conference six weeks ago but have since faltered amid mounting violence between Israel and Gaza militants, and Jewish settlement activity on occupied Palestinian land.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, said 2008 would be a "moment of truth" but said "stopping the madness of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas" was key in advancing peacemaking.
"We take your advice to not underestimate the Iranian threat. Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self defence," said Peres.
Bush has taken aim at Iran after a confrontation between Iranian vessels and US warships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz that has further inflamed tensions already high over Tehran's nuclear programme.
"We viewed it as a provocative act. It is a dangerous situation and they should not have done it, pure and simple," Bush declared on Tuesday.
The Pentagon released a video and audiotape to back up its charge that Iranian speedboats swarmed around three US warships and radioed a threat to blow them up. Iran retorted that it was a "clumsy" fabrication.
Reacting to Bush's arrival in the region, Syria said the US president's efforts to protray Iran as the enemy of Arabs during his tour was doomed to failure.
"It is an attempt -- which will not succeed -- to replace the Israeli threat which is real and concrete, by an Iranian danger, which is illusory," Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told reporters in Damascus.
Bush later went into talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert which a senior Israeli official told AFP would "focus mainly on Iran."
Olmert would present Bush with new Israeli material which would challenge the findings of a US intelligence report in December which found Tehran had abandoned its clandestine nuclear weapons programme in 2003, said the official, who declined to be named.
"After the NIE report was released Olmert instructed all security intelligence services to work hard to come up with new assessments to counter the US report," the official said.
Olmert himself hailed Bush on his arrival as Israel's "strongest and most trusted ally in the battle against terrorism," and said the bond between their two nations was "unshakeable."
On Thursday Bush will visit Ramallah for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Israeli and Palestinian authorities have set up a massive security operation amid threats of violence, including a call by US member of Al-Qaeda who urged followers to greet Bush with "bombs not flowers."
Bush said at a meeting with Peres that he was optimistic and realistic as he embarked on the first US presidential visit to Israel in nine years, but that it was vital for "the world to fight terrorists."
"It won't be the last year but maybe the best year for peace," Peres said.
At the airport earlier, Bush said the alliance between Washington and Israel "helps guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state," sparking ire from the Islamist Hamas group that has ruled the Gaza Strip for seven months.
The comments "betray the true objectives of Bush, who has come to the region to offer political support to the occupier... without taking into account the interests of our people," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
On the eve of Bush's visit, Olmert and Abbas agreed to start negotiations on key issues at the heart of their conflict -- borders, Jewish settlements, Jerusalem and refugees -- at a meeting aimed at revitalising the hobbled talks.
But violence continued to simmer, with Israeli troops killing a Gaza militant and two Palestinian civilians, and gunmen launching 11 rockets and mortar shells into Israel.
There is widespread Arab scepticism of Bush's chances of achieving a breakthrough in the decades-long Middle East conflict, amid anger over the war in Iraq and criticism that Washington is too partial to Israel.
In a bid to win backing for his campaign against Iran, Bush will travel to key allies in the oil-rich Gulf -- Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- before ending his tour in Egypt on January 16.
"I am there to reassure and to look people in the eye and say, I believe Iran is a threat; we have a strategy to deal with it; and we want to work with you," Bush told Arabic television Al-Arabiya.
"I believe we can solve this diplomatically," he said. "On the other hand... all options must be on the table in order to make sure diplomacy is effective."
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