Bush in Israel for Mideast Peace Talks

JERUSALEM -- U.S. President George W. Bush began his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as president Wednesday, saying he saw a new opportunity for peace in the face of deep skepticism.

No breakthroughs were expected in three days of talks following up on a U.S.-hosted international conference in November that yielded promises from both sides to try to forge a two-state accord before Bush's term ends in January 2009.

Accused for years of neglecting the Middle East's most intractable conflict, Bush strode down the red carpet at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport and spoke of a lasting peace that has eluded many of his predecessors.

"We see a new opportunity for peace here in the holy land and for freedom across the region," Bush said at the welcoming ceremony before flying by helicopter to Jerusalem for talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"We will discuss our deep desire for security and freedom and for peace throughout the Middle East."

Bush will try to nudge Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom he sees in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, to move forward in a fragile peace process restarted at Annapolis, Maryland.

But Olmert and Abbas are politically weak, and analysts say chances are slim to reach a Palestinian statehood deal before Bush leaves the White House. Doubts remain about the seriousness of his commitment and ability to act as an even-handed broker between U.S. ally Israel and Palestinians.

Iran also looms large over Bush's travels, which will include visits to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies he hopes to enlist in efforts to contain Tehran's growing regional clout.

Peres opened the visit by telling Bush immediately at the welcoming ceremony of Israel's concerns about Tehran's nuclear program -- worries that Washington shares.

"Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self-defense," Peres said.

Israeli officials say Iran, not the peace process, will be the focus of their leaders' discussions with Bush.

Bush seems intent on using the waning months of his presidency to try to shape a foreign policy legacy not completely defined by the unpopular war in Iraq.

He may also be hoping to use the Middle East stage to stay relevant as he competes for attention with the presidential race back home, a reminder to world leaders that they will be dealing with his successor in about a year's time.

While U.S. officials played down expectations, Bush's visit was clearly a national event for Israelis, some of whom took to rooftops to wave at his helicopter as it flew over Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Asked whether Bush would try to flesh out his view of how core issues of the dispute should be handled, his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said, "We weren't looking for big deliverables out of the trip of this sort."

The Palestinians have been upset over Jewish settlement expansion they say could deny them a viable state, while Israel is threatening to step up attacks on militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.

While Bush has called settlement expansion an "impediment," doubts remain over how much pressure he will be willing to put on Israel, a key ally, to make compromises.