David's Bush story

Bush is set to leave Washington for Israel on Tuesday, accompanied by his wife, on a trip to mark the 60th anniversary of the state. But the president is also flying on to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for a series of meetings with other Middle Eastern leaders. It is a tour said by his National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to have been designed to "demonstrate the president's steadfast opposition to extremists and their state sponsors, Iran and Syria, who are expending enormous energy to thwart opportunities for security, freedom and peace in the region." Bush is to meet on Wednesday with President Peres and Prime Minister Olmert, and speak briefly at Peres's international anniversary conference. On Thursday, he will tour Masada, address the Knesset and meet Quartet envoy Tony Blair. And on Friday, he and his wife will participate in a roundtable with young Israelis. Only later in the trip, in Egypt, will he meet with Palestinian leaders, while no top-level three-way American-Israeli-Palestinian meeting has been scheduled. Hadley said last week that this was because "the bilateral conversations between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators seem to be going pretty well... And this did not seem the time for a big high-level, three-way event with the president and the prime minister and President Abbas. It just doesn't feel right as the best way to advance the negotiations." Instead, later Friday, the first couple will leave Israel and fly on to Saudi Arabia, where their visit coincides with the 75th anniversary of the formal establishment of US-Saudi relations. On Saturday, in Sharm el Sheikh, Bush will meet with Abbas, and, separately, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. On Sunday, he meets Jordan's King Abdullah, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Iraqi leaders. Bush's original schedule also provided for a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Finally, Bush is to address the World Economic Forum's Sharm meeting, before leaving Egypt and heading home. All these various talks, said Hadley last week, "will be an opportunity to reaffirm the president's commitment to the freedom agenda in the Middle East and the search for peace" - an agenda that has since been challenged afresh by the current Hizbullah-inspired instability in Lebanon. Hadley, who gave a long briefing to the press, said the planned Bush sessions with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia and Egypt underlined the president's feeling that wider Arab backing would be crucial for "whatever decisions" Abbas may make en route to what Bush still hopes will an agreement by the end of 2008. "Any Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation will be in the context of a broader reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world." The president further believes, said Hadley, that if an agreement were reached "for a framework for a two-state solution and for the outlines of a Palestinian state," Abbas would then be able to appeal to the people of Gaza to rally behind it. Abbas, said Hadley, would tell Gazans that they can live under Hamas "oppression" or be part of a Palestinian state. "And at that point, the people of Gaza will have a choice to make," he said. Asked by a reporter what legacy Bush was leaving for Israel, and specifically whether the country was in a weaker position now than when the president took office, Hadley offered a robust defense. He said Bush had firmly backed Israel's right "to defend itself and its people against terror." He said Israel's strategic position had been much improved by the ousting of Saddam Hussein. He said there was now an opportunity to negotiate an "end of conflict" accord with the Palestinians. And he said Arab countries in the region were now more supportive of that process than previously. "I think you could make an argument that the last seven years have been very helpful in improving the strategic position of Israel," said Hadley. Unsurprisingly, Hadley would not be drawn on the impact of the latest Olmert investigation, although he did indicate that the prime minister was not personally indispensable. Olmert, said the national security adviser, "has obviously been a very important part of these peace negotiations. But again, remember, these are negotiations going on between the government of Israel and the Palestinian administration... that involve representatives from other members of the Israeli government..."