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Behind the Scenes: Clock ticking on Mideast peace deal

  • Story Highlights
  • Secret Service said to cover Hebrew letters on bulletproof buses in January
  • Bush bullish on peace in January, has till year's end to forge deal while president
  • Abbas under fire over tenuous hold on power, Olmert under cloud of bribery probe
  • Bush flying Tuesday to meet both men, prod peace deal amid public pessimism
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN's Ed Henry reports on President Bush's efforts to broker a Mideast peace deal before the end of his presidency.

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President Bush, center, holds hands with Ehud Olmert, left, and Mahmoud Abbas in Maryland last year.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As I got ready to head back to Jerusalem with President Bush on Tuesday, I keep flashing back to one particularly eye-opening moment during his last trip to the region in search of a peace deal four months ago.

On that morning in January, members of the press corps boarded bulletproof buses for the journey from Jerusalem to Ramallah for Bush's press conference at the former compound of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which had been bombed by Israeli forces many years ago.

We were also told the Secret Service had recommended that the Hebrew letters on our Israeli buses be covered with masking tape to make us less of a target for potential suicide bombers during our trek to the Palestinian territories -- a stark reminder of the horrific violence always lurking in the region.

And then suddenly during the press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the most revealing moment of the trip popped out almost accidentally, as Bush was trying to stress to reporters that he was not in a hurry to get a peace deal. Map of area »

"I'm not a timetable person," he said, before stopping himself and adding: "Actually, I am on a timetable -- got 12 months."

There was laughter in the room, including from the president as he stopped and realized that he had just blurted out something that is obvious and yet the White House hates to admit: His time in office is dwindling fast.

That's why Bush's second trip to the Mideast this year has so much urgency. Let's not forget that during his first trip, the president was downright bullish about the prospects for a peace deal before he leaves office.

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"I believe it's possible, not only possible, I believe that it is going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office. That's what I believe," Bush said at a January news conference in Ramallah.

Since then, however, there has been little tangible progress from the follow-up talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the core issues, such as the borders for a proposed Palestinian state or how Jerusalem would be divided. Key players »

"It's kind of a gloomy mood, you might say, in the region," said Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace.

Further complicating matters is that both men are walking political tightropes, with Abbas fending off questions about whether he will soon be ousted now that Hamas is controlling Gaza, while Olmert is under the cloud of an intensive investigation into whether he accepted bribes as Jerusalem mayor. Video Watch how Olmert is facing bribery charges »

Olmert has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, and he recently vowed to resign if he is indicted as a way of trying to make the probe slightly less distracting.

Amid the public pessimism, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday that quiet progress is being made.

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"I don't think that you can deduce what's happening behind closed doors because we don't know," Perino told reporters. "And I actually think they're making more progress than we're able to say, because they're doing it in a way that is the right way to negotiate a deal."

Maybe. But time is running out. The clock that Bush referred to in January is now down to eight months -- and ticking.

All About George W. BushMahmoud AbbasEhud Olmert

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