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President Bush’s Middle East Trip: News and commentary from the trip and the difficult 48 hours following his return - Bill Koenig

President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced some difficult political challenges and news 48-hours after their final stop in their ambitious drive for peace in Israel and relationship building in five Arab countries.

President Bush closed an eight-day Mideast trip Wednesday with a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Sharm al Sheikh, Egypt. AFP wrote, he was upbeat about what even some of America's closest allies say is an unexpected and ambitious drive. An Israeli-Palestinian agreement has eluded U.S. presidents for forty years.

The Associated Press wrote Bush had a message for skeptical Arab states whose help he needs to make any accord stick and who doubt the president's intention to personally shepherd a deal. "I mean what I'm saying," Bush said.

President Bush’s peace push in Israel and relations in the Middle East was jeopardized later on Wednesday by Israeli Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman, withdrawing the 11 members in his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, from Ehud Olmert’s coalition leaving Olmert with a coalition with 67 of Parliament’s 120 seats.

If eight more Knesset members leave Olmert’s coalition that would put his government in danger of collapse and very likely force new elections unless he could find others to join his coalition.

The Shas Party, the party of the Orthodox Jews, who have threatened to leave Olmert’s coalition if he tampered with Jerusalem or the Temple Mount have 12 Knesset members.

In the first day back in his office, President Bush huddled with the US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on an emergency stimulus package for the US economy reeling from the subprime mortgage crisis.

The next day, President Bush presented a proposal of $145 billion worth of tax relief as part of a plan to stimulate the U.S. economy amid fears that the subprime mortgage crisis and faltering consumer confidence could tip the country into recession.

Bush said that Congress should work as soon as possible to send him legislation to "keep our economy growing and creating jobs."

Later that day, Condoleezza Rice’s close colleague Nicholas Burns announced that he was leaving the State Department.

Burns, number three at the state department, has been a close colleague of Ms Rice for almost 20 years and she has trusted him as the point man for US policy not only on Iran, but on Kosovo and the US nuclear pact with India.

After 26 years as a top notch, soft-spoken career diplomat, Burns "has decided it was time for him to retire from the Foreign Service," Rice told reporters in a surprise announcement.

His retirement came at a crucial time for the administration of President George W. Bush's foreign policy agenda amid no breakthrough in US led efforts to boost sanctions against Iran over its sensitive nuclear program as well as to end North Korea's nuclear weapons drive.

Rice acknowledged that Burns' departure would be a big loss.

Plus there was a week of big losses in the stock market which ended on Friday with the Dow Jones industrial average falling 59.91 points, to 12,099.30. The New York times wrote that modest decline capped a four-day 678-point plunge that left Wall Street traders and everyday investors wondering if the worst was over — or yet to come.


The following are news excerpts and commentary on President Bush’s trip to Israel and the Middle East. I will have more news and observations later this week.

Is President Bush choosing the lesser of consequences?

President Bush has received letters, emails, faxes and phone calls from Christians and Jews warning him about dividing Israel's covenant land. He now says, with great frequency, that he will not pressure Israel to make concessions that would endanger them.

It appears he sees the potential of a connection of actions and consequences when it comes to pressuring Israel to divide her land. Is he choosing the lesser of consequences — weather-related disasters and catastrophes and political consequences — versus how many would react if he were to change his mind and stand with Israel's right to all of her land?

There would certainly be fewer disasters and political disruptions if Bush stood with the small part of the church that stands with Israel and quit publicly pressuring Israel to divide her land and continue the peace process.

If he changed his position, the Middle East oil interests, the EU, the U.N. and Russia would ask him to step down as the point man in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; a majority of the "replacement theology" church leaders such as the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and most reform and conservative Jews would say Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are responsible for the change; and President Bush would be greatly chastised for this decision.

President Bush has an important decision to make: He will have to either please God or please man. Whatever decision he makes will affect his remaining time in office, his future and our nation's future.

Genesis 12:3 (NKJV) says, "I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

Bush: We share the same god (from the White House Web site)

On Tuesday, Jan. 15, participants in a roundtable discussion with President Bush at the U. S. Embassy in Riyadh talked with him afterwards.

The President told the entrepreneurs, "I love the fact that some of you were educated in America. I think you'll find you got a good education there; but more importantly, Americans get to see you, and you get to see them. And the best way to achieve better understanding in the world is for folks just to get together, and get to understand that we share the same god, and we share the same aspirations for children and for our futures."

Bush: Past peace talks failed due to lack of Arab involvement

Previous peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were unsuccessful due to a lack of Arab involvement in the process, President Bush said Tuesday during his trip to Saudi Arabia.

"Part of my mission was to make clear why talks failed in the past. There wasn't participation by the neighbors," Bush said, referring to Arab countries that have kept their distance from the negotiations.

Bush said he is convinced the Arab leaders want to see the creation of a Palestinian state in a peace agreement with Israel. "They definitely want it to happen," he said, "and they questioned the seriousness of the United States to remain involved in what has been a long and frustrating process."

"They want to see a deal done," he said. "The issue frustrates them."

Perspective: Adding the Saudis to negotiations in August 2001 and having them become much more involved lately is a bad decision by President Bush. Instead of dealing with Israel's neighbors — Jordan's Abdullah and Egypt's Mubarak — they now are dealing with King Abdullah who has brought along 15 so-called "moderate" Middle Eastern countries who expect Israel to cooperate.

The expectations of Israel have been increased significantly in the Middle East and the international community due to President Bush's plan of inclusion. Obviously, that was to facilitate his strategic interests in the region, but it's made the situation much more difficult for Israel.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino's statement on President Bush and King Abdullah's meeting

Just a couple of notes about last night. The President obviously enjoyed a very warm reception from the Saudi Arabian King, and the horse farm was quite splendid. There was warm conversation all around, very hospitable, and we enjoyed ourselves very much.

I checked in with the President, because after the dinner the President met up with the King, and the King walked him back to where the President was staying and then they had a private meeting for quite a while.

This morning, I asked the President if he did bring up the issue of high oil prices in the United States. He did bring that up with the King. He says that the King says that he understands the situation. He's worried about high oil prices and how they can negatively affect economies around the world.

The President said there's a hope that as a result of these conversations that OPEC would be encouraged to authorize an increase production.

Michael Abramowitz of The Washington Post wrote:

President Bush on Monday launched a rare round of intensive personal diplomacy with Saudi King Abdullah aimed at winning support for a variety of American objectives such as rebuilding Iraq, pressuring Iran, fighting al-Qaeda and backing the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bush is devoting two days of his Middle East trip to Saudi Arabia, much of it to private meetings with the king, who is hosting the president at his guest palace here and at the farm near Riyadh where Abdullah raises Arabian stallions. That amounts to an unusual commitment of diplomatic time, reflecting both the large role Saudi Arabia plays in U.S. economic and foreign policy and a desire to strengthen a relationship that has frayed badly over the past seven years.

Some diplomats and experts with close ties to the administration say meeting with Abdullah has been the main purpose of the president's trip to the region.

While publicly polite, the Saudi king and other leading figures also see the incumbent U.S. president as a disappointment — certainly compared with his father, George H.W. Bush, a close friend and former oilman who was lionized here for his handling of the Persian Gulf War. By contrast, former officials and others close to the royal family say, Saudi royals believe Bush has handled issues such as Iran, Iraq and Middle East peace ineptly.

Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily Al Watan, said that Bush's visit to the kingdom is not being viewed as particularly important and that "people are not really expecting a lot" from it.

"The Saudi position is that we want to be friends with Iran and move away from the possible U.S-Iranian confrontation," Khashoggi said.

Jerusalem, Arkansas, hit by tornado; Mount Zion Church destroyed (The Associated Press)

Note: A few hours before President Bush left for Israel, a tornado touched down in Jerusalem, Arkansas, and destroyed Mt. Zion Community Church there.

After a tornado touched down in Appleton on Tuesday, January 8, it continued about five miles east to Jerusalem, destroying several homes, chicken coops, even a church.

Driving into Jerusalem, you can't miss the destroyed homes and trailers. Three massive trees fell on one home, finding their final resting place on the roof. Elsie Porter was shocked by the twister's strength and volume.

"Real big, like a heavy airplane on the ground, the noise was huge; I couldn't believe it," said Elsie Porter.

Conway County authorities say three homes were destroyed and 12 others damaged in the Jerusalem area. Ten structures, such as chicken houses and barns were destroyed. Three gas well sites were damaged. In addition, the Mt. Zion Community Church in Jerusalem was destroyed.