The Associated Press
December 19, 2007 - 3:06pm

President Bush will make his first trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank next month to push Israel and the Palestinians toward peace, the White House announced yesterday.

Bush also plans to stop during his nine-day trip in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The trip, which begins Jan. 8, comes after a conference in Annapolis last month reenergized White House efforts toward assisting Israel and the Palestinians in forming an independent Palestinian homeland.

"Part of it is to continue to keep the [Annapolis] discussions going, to show the commitment and to remind the world that this is a moment that has presented itself, and it's time for everyone to seize the opportunity to make sure that the Palestinians and the Israelis are supported," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. "In addition to that, the president wants to help try to increase Israeli and Arab reconciliation."

Bush is scheduled to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. No three-way meeting is planned, and it remains unclear whether Bush will engage in detailed negotiations.

The White House said the trip also will provide an opportunity to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the security of American allies in the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf nations, and work with them to combat terrorism and extremism. Iraq, Iran, regional security and economic ties also will be discussed on the trip.

Bush will not meet with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which won control of the Gaza Strip in elections in June. That split the Palestinian territory in two -- the Gaza Strip, run by Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah Party.

"The president wants to deal with the elected leader of all the Palestinians," Perino said, referring to Abbas. ". . . Hamas is a terrorist organization. He is not going to be talking with them."

Meanwhile, Israeli aircraft launched an assault on the radical Islamic Jihad organization in Gaza, killing the group's overall commander and nine other militants in three fiery strikes. A fourth attack on a security post in southern Gaza killed two Hamas militants.

The heavy death toll was part of a stepped-up offensive against the militants, who fire rockets into southern Israel almost daily. Islamic Jihad, a small radical group with ties to Iran, has taken responsibility for most of the barrages, including an attack this week that slightly wounded a 2-year-old Israeli boy.

In Tel Aviv, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak emerged from a meeting with retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the new American military envoy to the region, to say that Israel would not let up in its offensive in Gaza, although the militants' threats of revenge must be taken seriously.

"I hope these successes continue. At the same time we must be on our guard for the responses that may come from the other side," Barak said.

Israel has been carrying out frequent airstrikes and ground incursions into Gaza since Hamas seized control of the area in June. Hamas has not been heavily involved in the cross-border attacks, but Israel holds it responsible because it allows other armed groups, including Islamic Jihad, to operate with impunity.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017