Uncharacteristically, Bush Hits Tourist Stops
BY Michael Abramowitz
ON THE PRESS CHARTER, Jan. 11 -- We are now flying from Tel Aviv to Kuwait City, the "Israeli-Palestinian" leg of President Bush's trip now officially over. This time I am not on Air Force One but aboard the plane that carries most of the press corps wherever the president is headed abroad. It is a giant 747, big enough to carry the contingent of roughly 110 journalists, plus White House press and travel staff, who are traveling on the Middle East trip.
We all believe the president will be in Kuwait when we arrive, but speculation has been rampant among the reporters on the plane that Bush will add another unannounced stop to his itinerary, perhaps Iraq or Lebanon. To the best of my knowledge, this belief has no basis in anything but the fevered hopes and imagination of my colleagues, but perhaps we will know for sure when we land at Kuwait International Airport. (We did eventually land in Kuwait.)
I thought I would use some of the two hours to offer a reporter's notebook, as we call it in our business. My story in the newspaper today focused on the biggest news of Bush's visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank, including his statement last night on what he considers the key elements of a possible peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But Bush has been very busy over the last two days, and some interesting stuff was necessarily left on the cutting room floor as I pieced together the story with the help of my colleague in Jerusalem, Jonathan Finer. Here is some of the material:
One distinctive feature of this trip was that Bush devoted a considerable amount of time to hitting some of the main tourist stops in Israel and the West Bank. This may seem unremarkable, but the president is famously known for the speed of his foreign visits. (This is a man who provoked some controversy a few years when he went to India for two days and skipped the Taj Mahal.)
But after his trip to Ramallah yesterday to meet with Palestinian leaders, Bush helicoptered to Bethlehem, where he and his top aides had a tour of the Church of the Nativity. The president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lit candles in the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born.
"It's been a moving moment for me," Bush said later. "For those of us who practice the Christian faith, there's really no more holy site than the place where our Savior was born."
Before leaving Israel today, Bush made another emotional visit, this one to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial. The president donned a yarmulke to tour the exhibits and had tears in his eyes at two points, according to Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev, who talked about the visit with reporters afterwards.
Shalev also said something that might create some controversy in the next few days: Bush reportedly weighed in on the historical debate over whether the Allies should have bombed concentration camps. During the tour, Bush looked at aerial photographs of Auschwitz and called over Rice, a former political science professor at Stanford, to talk about it.
"We should have bombed it," Shalev quoted Bush as saying.
Rice played down the conversation but did not exactly deny it when asked by reporters aboard Air Force One today. "We were talking about the often discussed 'Could the United States have done more by bombing the train tracks,'" Rice said. "And so we were just talking about the various explanations that had been given about why that might not have been done. That was all. It wasn't a major discussion."
Before departing Israel this afternoon, Bush visited Galilee, the site of several Christian holy sites, including the ruins at Capernaum, where Jesus is believed to have performed miracles, and the Church of Beatitudes, the location of the Sermon on the Mount.
"An amazing experience," Bush said when asked what it was like to be walking in the footsteps on Jesus.
Another interesting element of the trip has been Bush's cautious engagement in the Byzantine internal politics of Israel. This is no small matter: One huge question is whether the two principal leaders in the peace negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have the political support to strike a deal that Bush said would require "painful political concessions" from both sides.
Abbas lost control of a big chunk of his territory last summer when Hamas took over Gaza. Olmert, meanwhile, is deeply unpopular in Israel because of a corruption scandal and the botched war in Lebanon. One Israeli poll this week said his support in Israel had dropped to 8 percent.
But Olmert remains in power due to the curious nature of Israeli politics. His various coalition partners have so far not found it in their interest to force the government to collapse. At a dinner Thursday night with the Israeli cabinet, Bush appeared to be probing for clues about whether the government will survive as Olmert presses forward with the peace process.
The dinner spilled long past the hour on the president's schedule for the visit, and the wait staff brought a second round of desserts as Bush spoke with leaders of coalition members skeptical of the peace process. The Jerusalem Post reported that Bush pressed them to support Olmert, but a U.S. official familiar with the conversation said the president was not so blunt or heavy-handed.
Speaking on background because of diplomatic sensitivities, the official said Bush was indeed interested in getting a sense of the political lay of the land in Israel and made clear he did not want Olmert to be undermined politically once the peace process picks up.
Bush's message, this source said, was for the cabinet members "to get their political act together."
Between meetings with Israelis and Palestinians, Bush spent some time Thursday with his old friend Tony Blair, who is now serving as a part-time Middle East peace envoy, with a focus on trying to help the Palestinians build up their institutions.
The White House did not offer too many details about the conversation, but Blair talked about it during an interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz. He dismissed the popular perception that the three leaders--Bush, Abbas and Olmert--are too weak to pull off an agreement.
"What I say to people is, first of all, President Bush is most certainly popular here [Israel]. And in any event, he is the president of the United States of America and he is a very determined man, as I know. You know, when his mind is set on something, he will go for it, and he is going for it."
By Washington Post Editor |
January 11, 2008; 3:57 PM ET
Bush in Middle East, Jan. 2008
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