Bush arrives in Tel Aviv to start visiting Israel

By Xinhua

Tel Aviv : U.S. President George W. Bush arrived here on Wednesday noon to start visiting Israel, the first leg of his eight-day Middle East trip.

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Upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Bush emerged from his special plane and was greeted on the scene by Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Peres, in his welcoming speech at the airport, warned arch-foe Iran not to underestimate Israel’s resolve to defend itself, saying, “We take your advice to not underestimate the Iranian threat. Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self-defense.”

He urged the U.S. ally to “stop the madness” of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Peres also claimed that Bush’s visit was “a moment of truth” for the Middle East peace. “2008 should be the pathway from words to action, from aspiration to reality. Indeed, the next 12 months will be a moment of truth,” he said.

While Olmert told a smiling Bush that the United States was Israel’s strongest and most trusted ally, saying that relations between the two nations were “unshakeable.”

“You are our strongest and most trusted ally in the battle against terrorism and fundamentalism and a staunch supporter of our quest for peace and stability,” Olmert said.

For his part, Bush said he was seeing a new opportunity in the holy land. “We see a new opportunity for peace here in the holy land and for freedom across the region,” he said.

“The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state,” Bush added.

During his three-day stay in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Bush is expected to hold meetings with Israeli leaders, including Peres and Olmert.

He will later visit the West Bank and hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Bush will also visit Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

For the first time since he took office in 2000, the U.S. president is visiting Israel and later the Palestinian territories, which is aimed at advancing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the wake of the Annapolis peace conference in November last year.

Israel and the Palestinians had pledged to strive for a final-status agreement before the end of 2008 at the Annapolis conference. But talks between the two sides have been low-key with no tangible progress.

The U.S. president, whose term ends in January 2009, is expected to press Israel and the Palestinians to accelerate their recently-revived peace talks during his visit.

In order to show his commitments to the Middle East peace process in his final year in office, Bush has sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region eight times since the beginning of 2007 to promote the Roadmap peace plan.

The Roadmap plan, known for its vision of two-state solution, was declared in 2002 by Bush who called for creating a viable and democratic Palestinian statehood alongside Israel which should be secured.

Following Israel and the Palestinian territories, Bush will also visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia,and Egypt. And there are media reports speculating that he will also make a surprise visit to Iraq.

Besides the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Bush’s another priority in his regional tour is to try to forge an alliance among Arab countries against Iran with a view to curbing Tehran’s influence in the region.

Bush’s visit came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. over a confrontation between Iranian gunboats and U.S. warships in the Gulf.

The U.S. branded the incident, in which no shots were fired, a “provocative act,” but Tehran played it down as a “normal” occurrence.

The Pentagon said Monday that five Iranian boats had harassed and threatened three U.S. Navy warships in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz.

Bush administration officials immediately warned Iran to refrain from taking “provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future.”

But Iran responded by calling the incident “something normal” and said the incident has been resolved.

Bush’s hardline stance against Iran received a big blow late last year when a top U.S. intelligence report revealed that Tehran had suspended its nuclear weapons program several years ago. However, Bush maintained that Iran remained a threat.