Middle East


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michelle Norris.

President Bush got a warm welcome today in Israel, where he's been called a trusted ally and friend. He's there at the start of a weeklong tour through the Middle East to try to nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. And although those negotiations have gotten off to a slow start, Mr. Bush said he thinks the leaders he's dealing with are ready to make tough choices.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It was a day of tight security and plenty of presidential pomp.

(Soundbite of music "The Star-Spangled Banner")

KELEMEN: But while President Bush was feted by Israeli leaders at an elaborate airport ceremony outside Tel Aviv, his view from the helicopter ride to Jerusalem showed some of the troubles ahead, as he tries to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree on the contours of a Palestinian state. Some Israelis put up a huge sign in a field that could be seen from the air. It read, "Hands off Jerusalem." One of the key issues in the talks is how the Israelis and Palestinians would share the ancient city.

In another sign of trouble, Hamas fired rockets from Gaza, striking Southern Israel again today, provoking a sharp response from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): There will be no peace unless terror is stopped, and terror will have to be stopped everywhere. Gaza must be part of the package, and as long as there will be terror from Gaza, it will be very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding.

KELEMEN: President Bush said he is going to bring up that issue when he meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank tomorrow, even though Abbas has little, if any, influence in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. In return, the President is likely to hear a lot of other concerns from the Palestinians, particularly about Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Israeli building projects in Jerusalem that Palestinians say are undermining negotiations. President Bush, not one to get down into the nitty-gritty of peacemaking, said he's been urging the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to keep the big picture in mind and not get sidetracked over settlements or rocket attacks.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I've come away with the belief that, while those issues are important and certainly create consternation amongst the respective constituencies, that both leaders are determined to make the hard choices necessary.

KELEMEN: Despite the odds, he says he is optimistic the two sides can agree on a vision of a Palestinian state by the time his term ends. He says the US won't dictate, but will nudge the two sides.

Pres. BUSH: Well, my trip was a pretty significant nudge.

KELEMEN: There has been little headway, however, since Pres. Bush hosted Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Annapolis in December. And another issue is crowding the agenda on this trip, the threat of a rising Iran. Mr. Bush is trying to clear up some confusion in the region about his Iran policy following an intelligence report that said Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Pres. BUSH: A country which once had a secret program can easily restart a secret program. A country which can enrich for civilian purposes can easily transfer that knowledge to a military program.

KELEMEN: The President is urging allies to help isolate Iran, which could be a hard sell in some of the Gulf states he is planning to visit later in the week. The administration has been playing up what it says was a provocative act by Iranian naval boats in the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend, and President Bush, today, had a warning to Iran about that.

BUSH: There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple. And my advice to them is: don't do it.

KELEMEN: The Pentagon released a video of the incident. Iran called it a fake, accusing the U.S. of trying to stir up tensions in the region.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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