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President Bush sets off today on a swing through Middle East. He'll attempt to nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward peace on this, his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as president.
In his eight-day trip, he'll also visit key Gulf allies to talk about what he sees as a rising Iranian threat. That's a view bolster by an incident on Sunday when a group of Iranian boats charged and threatened American warships on their way into the Persian Gulf. The U.S. called the action, quote, "unduly provocative."
Addressing Iran is one of the many challenges on a trip that's expected to mark a change in style for the president, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: The Bush administration has been mugged by reality. That's how one analyst, Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees this trip to the Middle East.
Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): After vowing to transform the Middle East, the administration is submitting to it, resorting to the sort of process-driven incremental diplomacy that previous administrations had pursued and that this administration had disdained.
KELEMEN: The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he says, is a case in point.
Mr. ALTERMAN: A friend who used to work in the White House told me, you know, this president doesn't like to tee things up. He's a closer. He likes to close deals. And this deal is not ready to be closed.
KELEMEN: President Bush says that by the time he leaves office, he thinks he can help the Israelis and Palestinians reach a vision of what a Palestinian state would look like. But he and his staff have played down any expectations of a breakthrough on this trip, saying the visit is mainly about trying to keep up the momentum.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I will make clear that America is deeply committed to helping both parties realize the historic vision we share: two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.
KELEMEN: President Bush is to meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and squeeze in some tours of the Holy Land.
The second part of the president's trip will be to the Gulf, where he will visit with troops in Kuwait, get an update on Iraq, and visit the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet in Bahrain. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley says a key issue in the president's talks with Gulf leaders will be Iran.
Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Adviser): There's a lot of concern in the region about Iran, not all of it expressed publicly. And I think the president is going to want to go and talk privately and quietly to indicate that we understand the challenge that Iran represents to the region, that our friends and allies in the region can count on our commitment to the region and our continued presence in the region.
KELEMEN: But Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, says Gulf leaders are skeptical that President Bush knows what he's doing, and doubt a strategy of containing Iran can work.
Professor VALI NASR (Tufts University): The president is going to the Middle East at a very bad time, in a sense that he's going with the aim of trying to sell an old policy without coming up with a new policy to sell, trying to sell the old policy of containment literally right after the Arab governments have already signaled that they are shifting away from that policy.
KELEMEN: Iran's president was recently invited to a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting and went on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Egypt also hosted an Iranian envoy recently.
Several analysts said they expect President Bush will be on the receiving end of lots of lectures about the realities in the Middle East, though all of that in private. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says many in the region have already written off this president.
Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): People are going to be polite. They will be accommodating in some ways, but they're well aware that this is not only an election year, it is an election year from an administration that really has no heir that can really speak for the future or run for the future.
KELEMEN: In one recent interview, President Bush said he hopes people in the region will remember him as the, quote, "guy who was willing to fight extremists and who had faith in people to self-govern."
But if this is a trip about burnishing his legacy, he's not expected to change his tune on what he calls the freedom agenda. That will be the main theme of a speech in the United Arab Emirates.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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