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Analysis: Is Bush Mideast trip making up for lost time?

  • Story Highlights
  • President Bush arrives in Israel Wednesday to begin eight-day Mideast trip
  • The president will visit Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Arab states
  • White House failed to give peace process enough attention, critics say
  • Bush optimistic that progress possible in Israeli-Palestinian disputes
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By Ed Henry
CNN Washington bureau
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Henry is a CNN White House correspondent.

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Protesters in the Gaza Strip protest President Bush's trip to the Middle East.

JERUSALEM, Israel (CNN) -- Christ was born in Bethlehem just five miles away from here, and now thousands of years later this historic city has become the birthplace of -- all things -- a new blog the White House hopes will help bring positive attention to President Bush's Mideast tour that begins Wednesday.

"A little bit like a blog, yes -- dare I say," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told reporters about the new page at whitehouse.gov that will be called "Trip Notes from the Middle East" and feature periodic dispatches from senior White House aides.

Perino said she will be blogging along with White House chief of Staff Josh Bolten, counselor Ed Gillespie, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and White House speechwriter Bill McGurn.

"This is new to us," said Perino. "We encourage you to log on and to check back often to read some of the updates that the staff will be posting throughout the trip. So it will be just a little bit of a blog."

The blog's goal seems pretty simple: Push back against critics who say Bush's trip will be too little, too late because he did not pay enough attention to the Mideast peace process early in his presidency.

"He walked away from the peace process, he put it at arm's length and has largely kept it there for seven years," said P.J. Crowley, a former Clinton administration official who is now an analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Hadley sharply disagrees with that assessment. "The president has been working fairly consistently over seven years to put in place the building blocks of what now offers an opportunity for peace," he said. "And he has seized that opportunity."

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The White House knows the best defense can be a good offense, which is why within minutes of my arrival here I could already feel my Blackberry vibrating with an e-mail message bearing fresh talking points from the White House press office.

"Setting the record straight," blared the White House e-mail. "The Washington Post inaccurately claims the president Is 'scaling back' ambitions for Middle East peace process."

That came after a blast message sent earlier in the day from Perino, who told reporters the Post was wrong to contend Bush had ever suggested there could be a Palestinian state by the end of 2008.

"The president has never said that," Perino said. "We've been very clear that what 2008 should be used for is to help the negotiating parties focus on the big picture, but also get into some of the nitty gritty and very difficult issues, such as borders and settlements, that are going to have to be solved."

But in fact, the president at one time held open the possibility that at least the outlines of a Palestinian state could be created by 2005 -- three years ago. That goal has long since come and gone, but it's worth reflecting on what Bush said in 2002 when he became the first U.S. president to call for creation of a Palestinian state.

"As new Palestinian institutions and new leaders emerge, demonstrating real performance on security and reform, I expect Israel to respond and work toward a final status agreement," Bush said on June 24, 2002, in the Rose Garden. "With intensive effort by all, this agreement could be reached within three years from now. And I and my country will actively lead toward that goal."

Nobody can credibly blame Bush for the failure to reach that goal, the conflict in the Mideast is far too complex to claim that one man is solely responsible for the stalemate of the last few years. But the fact remains that by Bush's own standard of "intensive effort" set in 2002, the White House has not met that test, in large part because the president's foreign policy has largely focused on other matters, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now the president is racing against the clock, trying to get a peace deal before he leaves office to help make sure Iraq alone does not define his legacy. But getting a breakthrough will be difficult because of the ongoing violence here as well as the unpopularity of Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The reality is the leaders are weak, the gaps are wide and the time is short," Aaron Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center said of Bush's eight-day trip to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Despite the naysayers, Bush is still optimistic he can make progress on this mission.

"What has to happen in order for there to be a peaceful settlement of a longstanding dispute is there to be outlines of a state clearly defined, so that at some point in time, the Palestinians who agree that Israel ought to be -- exist, and agree that a state ought to live side by side with Israel in peace, have something to be for," the president said Tuesday at the White House shortly before leaving for the Mideast.

"They need to have a vision that's clearly defined that competes with the terrorists and the killers who murder the innocent people to stop the advance of democracy."

But success or failure on reaching that vision on this trip may boil down to one simple question: Can Bush make up for lost time? E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About George W. BushMiddle East ConflictIsraelPalestine

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