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U.S.: Bush Arrives In Israel At Start Of Middle East Tour


http://gdb.rferl.org/6133FEE8-D5B5-47B7-B2FC-C82CFC8683C4_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/6133FEE8-D5B5-47B7-B2FC-C82CFC8683C4_mw800_mh600.jpg Bush arrives at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv (AFP) U.S. President George W. Bush has arrived in Israel to take part in celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. During the visit, Bush is also expected to push for progress on his goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before he leaves office in January 2009.


Bush received a red-carpet welcome at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport. Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were among those who turned out to greet Bush on this, his second visit in five months.


The United States was the first country to recognize the new Jewish state after its independence declaration in May 1948, and it remains Israel's closest ally.


In a brief address, Bush touched on their common ground. He said both nations "faced great challenges when they were founded," adding they had "built an enduring alliance to confront terrorists and tyrants." Bush is set to speak later at an anniversary conference in Jerusalem that will include other world leaders past and present, such as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


Aside from birthday celebrations, Bush is also expected to try and reinvigorate flagging Middle East peace efforts. Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed at a U.S.-sponsored conference in November to try and reach a peace deal, including an agreement for a Palestinian state, by the end of Bush's second term in office.


But talks have faltered over a number of issues, including Israeli plans to expand settlements in the West Bank, violence in and around the Gaza Strip, and now a bribery investigation targeting Olmert. The worry is that peace efforts could be derailed if Olmert -- who has denied any wrongdoing -- is forced to resign.


Bush played down the potential fallout, calling Olmert -- in an interview on the eve of his visit -- an "honest man."


"The prime minister -- as I understand, the legal issue goes on and I fully understand that. [I] respect Israeli rule of law. I would just tell you [I] have great relations with the prime minister," Bush said. "I find him to be a frank man, an honest man, an open man, a guy easy to talk to, and somebody who understands the vision that's necessary for Israeli security. So we will continue working hard, and I do believe we can get a [Palestinian] state defined by the end of my presidency. A state won't exist until certain obligations are met by everybody, but [to] have it defined is very important."


Bush's itinerary does not include a stop in the Palestinian territories during his trip. It comes as Palestinians commemorate their own 60th anniversary -- of what they call the "nakba," or catastrophe, which resulted in the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Arabs.


Instead, Bush plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas and other regional leaders in Egypt on May 17. Bush also travels to Saudi Arabia as part of his tour.


Compiled from agency reports

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