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In Kuwait, Bush seeks Arab support for Mideast peace

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Posted: January 11, 2008 1:40 p.m.
Updated: January 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    KUWAIT CITY — President Bush sought Arab support on Friday for a U.S.-backed Mideast peace deal, but the Bush administration said not to expect a ‘‘blinding flash’’ of Arab cooperation for the restarted Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
    Secretary of Rice Condoleezza Rice, traveling with Bush, said it is unrealistic to expect Arab leaders to suddenly reach out to Israel, their historic enemy.
    ‘‘Some of this will happen over time,’’ Rice told reporters aboard Air Force One, en route to Kuwait. ‘‘There isn’t going to be a blinding flash in any of this, not on this trip, not on the next trip. But this is a process that is moving forward.’’
    ‘‘The Arab states took a big step in coming to Annapolis’’ where Bush brought together Israeli and Palestinian and other officials to launch the first peace negotiations in seven years, Rice said. She added that as talks move forward between Israelis and Palestinians, the ‘‘Arabs will do more and more.’’
    Rice said Bush’s trip to the region and his return to Israel in May give both sides incentives to move ahead with the difficult discussions. She said progress from the negotiations would come slowly, and that the two sides would seem far apart at times.
    Bush visited this tiny oil-rich nation his father fought a war over and one of only two invited guests to skip the splashy Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md., that Bush hosted for the new peace negotiations. Arriving to a ceremonial red-carpet welcome, Bush accepted a bouquet of flowers and greeted dignitaries as he began the next chapter of his eight-day journey to the troubled region.
    Bush was meeting Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, emir of the wealthy nation that sits at the top of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is flanked by large and powerful neighbors Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran to the east. While in Kuwait, Bush also was getting an update on Iraq’s security and political status from his top military commander there, Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.
    Before the two began a private meeting, the Kuwaiti emir told Bush he was delighted to have the U.S. president in Kuwait. ‘‘We are equally delighted to see you working on issues that are very important to all of us here,’’ Sheik Sabah said.
    ‘‘Your highness, it’s my honor. Thank you sir,’’ Bush replied.
    The president wants Arab states to throw support to Abbas in his internal fight with Palestinian militants and give him the regional support necessary to sustain any peace deal he could work out with Israel. Arabs came in force to Bush’s Annapolis summit, and he had flattered them with frequent references to an Arab draft for peace that, like past U.S. efforts, did not stick.
    Close Arab allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia had urged Bush to get more directly involved in Mideast peacemaking, saying the Palestinian plight seeded other conflicts and poisoned public opinion throughout the region. Those states and others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude since Annapolis, and Bush’s visit to the region is partly meant to nudge them off the fence.
    Earlier, in Tel Aviv, Bush said he would return to the Mideast in May to mark ally Israel’s 60th anniversary and to continue pushing for a peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians. It was an indication that hopes to crown his final year in office by putting a personal stamp on peacemaking efforts.
    ‘‘There’s a good chance for peace and I want to help you,’’ Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the airport here, where he boarded Air Force One, ending his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
    ‘‘Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President, thank you very much for your invitation to come back. I’m accepting it now,’’ Bush said on the tarmac.
    During his two days of formal talks with Olmert, Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush laid out U.S. expectations, saying that the two sides needed to get serious talks started immediately. On his way to visit Sunni Arab allies, Bush said he’d would ask them to reach out to the Jewish state.
    ‘‘I carry with me a message of optimism about the possibilities of a peace treaty,’’ Bush said with the two Israeli leaders. ‘‘I will share with them my thoughts about you and President Abbas and the determination to work to see whether or not it’s possible to come up with a peace treaty.’’
    The nascent peace talks haven’t made much headway, with old disputes about land and terrorism clouding the negotiators’ early meetings.
    After two days immersed in the intense and arcane world of Mideast peacemaking, Bush toured holy sites in northern Israel on Friday, listening as robed clerics read him biblical passages about Jesus’ days of ministry there centuries ago.
    Bush visited Capernaum, a site where Jesus is said to have performed miracles. The president gazed across the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is claimed to have walked on water. He toured the site of an ancient synagogue and joked and held hands with nuns outside the Church of the Beatitudes, a place where Jesus delivered his famed ‘‘Sermon on the Mount.’’
    Asked how it felt to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, Bush replied ‘‘Amazing experience.’’
    During the visit, Bush was given a crystal statue inscribed with words from the sermon, recounted in Matthew Chapter 5: ‘‘Blessed are those who are peacemakers for they will be called children of God.’’
    Archbishop Elias Shakur, the Greek Catholic clergyman who showed Bush around the site, said he asked him, ‘‘Did you come as a politician, as a leader of state, or as a pilgrim?’’
    ‘‘I came as a pilgrim,’’ Bush said, according to Shakur.
    Also earlier, Bush became misty-eyed as he toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The president, who first visited the memorial in 1998 when he was governor of Texas, was wearing a yarmulke as he rekindled an eternal flame and placed a red-white-and-blue wreath on a stone slab that covers ashes of Holocaust victims taken from six extermination camps.
    Bush called the memorial a ‘‘sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it.’’
    The peace effort is the centerpiece of Bush’s eight-day tour, but the balance of the trip is likely to focus as much on the uncertain ambitions of Shiite Iran. Bush’s Sunni allies are nervous about the rise of Iran in their midst, and the threat its adherents may one day pose to their authoritarian regimes, but also are sometimes at odds with the United States over the best strategy to address or confront Tehran.
    Some Arab states are worried by a new U.S. intelligence estimate downgrading the near-term threat that Iran will build nuclear weapons. Although Bush and other U.S. officials have said Iran remains a threat, allies with less powerful militaries fear that the United States is taking itself out of a potential fight. Bush says he wants to solve the Iran puzzle through diplomacy but takes no options off the table.
    In an interview broadcast Friday, Bush said there could well be a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, but it would be on the invitation of the Iraqi government. Asked on NBC’s ‘‘Today’’ show whether that means U.S. troops would be in Iraq for at least another 10 years, Bush said, ‘‘It could easily be that. Absolutely.’’
    ———
    Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Anne Gearan and Associated Press Writer Laurie Copans at the Sea of Galilee contributed to this report.

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