Official: No 3-way talks for Bush visit

White House spokesman says time is not right for Mideast talks, next week's visit will be ceremonial.

bush olmert abbas wave (photo credit: AP)
bush olmert abbas wave
(photo credit: AP)
US President Bush's second trip to the Mideast this year, designed in part to make progress toward a peace deal before the end of his presidency, will not see him hosting a joint session with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the White House said Wednesday. "This did not seem the time for a big, high-level, three-way event," Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, told reporters. "It just doesn't feel right as the best way to advance the negotiation." Bush has set a goal of shepherding an Israeli-Palestinian accord before he leaves office in January and has stepped into Mideast peacemaking at a level not previously seen in his presidency. But after launching in November the first substantive peace talks between the two sides in more than seven years, hopes that started out moderately high have dimmed considerably. Even Bush's once-unfailingly optimistic language on the peace process has become more tempered of late. And the lack of a three-way meeting between him, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - after on-again, off-again talk that one might be in the offing for this trip - seemed an ominous sign. The primary purpose of the president's five-day trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a follow-up to his trip to the same three countries and others in the region in January, is ceremonial. He is marking the 60th anniversary of Israel's creation and 75 years of US relations with Saudi Arabia. Bush also has plenty of official business on his plate. He will deliver speeches before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and at the World Economic Forum in the Middle East, a gathering of hundreds of global policymakers and business leaders being held in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. Also while in the Red Sea resort for two days, Bush is to meet with a string of leaders key to US goals in the region: Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Jordan's King Abdullah II, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and Iraqi leaders. "It's both symbolic and substantive," Hadley said of Bush's trip, which starts Tuesday. While in Jerusalem, Bush will hold talks with Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres in addition to attending a conference marking the Israeli anniversary and throwing a reception in honor of it. The White House decision for the president to see Abbas only while in Egypt, and not on another visit to the Palestinian territories, raised eyebrows with Palestinians - especially given the lavish attention being paid to the founding of the Jewish state. "We are, in some sense, all over this process, both in Israel and in terms of the West Bank," Hadley said. "And I think it just made sense in terms of the president's scheduling and given the messages and the themes we wanted to strike, this seemed to be a good way to accomplish what we are trying to accomplish with the trip." Negotiations have failed to move forward on the stickiest matters: the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees with claims to Jewish land. The seizure of control of the Gaza Strip by the terrorist Hamas and from Abbas is a particularly difficult factor in talks. But Hadley said it doesn't preclude an agreement. "The door has been opened to Hamas to become part of this process. They have refused to do so," he said. "The Palestinian Authority has decided to go forward and negotiate with Israel." Domestic concerns, particularly sky-high gasoline prices in the US, could overshadow Bush's one-night stay in Saudi Arabia, where he will spend most of his time at King Abdullah's desert horse farm outside Riyadh. Hadley said Bush once again will press the Saudis to increase oil production to help bring pump prices down. Bush did the same during his meetings in January with Abdullah - a request that ultimately was ignored. Hadley defended Bush against criticism that he doesn't have enough sway with the Saudis. "Capacity is limited in the Middle East," he said. But OPEC nations such as Saudi Arabia have considerable additional production capacity, pumping a little over 8.5 million barrels a day and acknowledging the ability to produce as much as 11 million barrels a day. Hadley suggested Bush will outline for Abdullah the recent string of bad news in the US economy in hopes of effecting a different outcome this time. This could pose an awkward argument for a president who focuses at home on predictions that the US economy is fundamentally strong enough that it will bounce back from its troubles. "There are developments in terms of the world - the US economy, in terms of its prospects and its strength," Hadley said. He said Bush would tell Abdullah - again - that oil suppliers need, for their own interests, to "take into account the economic health of their customers who pay these prices."