US President George W. Bush heads back to the Middle East this week, where his efforts to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace face growing skepticism with barely nine months left in his term.
The five-day trip is anchored on the 60th anniversary of Israel as a modern state, a stop in Saudi Arabia to mark 75 years of US relations with the kingdom, and talks in Egypt with a broad range of regional leaders.
The visit is Bush's second in four months -- after seven years in which he did not set foot in either Israel or the Palestinian territories -- and Bush aides see it as a blend of symbol and substance.
"It's going to be a mix," said US national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
The White House has taken care not to raise expectations, perhaps not only because of the lack of significant progress over the past few months, but because of the turmoil in Israel over the past few days.
Bush was due to meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who faces mounting calls to resign over a criminal probe into allegations he took bribes from a millionaire US financier.
After months of highlighting what it called good relations between Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Washington now describes peace efforts as the principally the work of two governments.
Olmert, a political survivor, has not been charged, but his legal woes could make it more difficult to convince Israelis to make the tough concessions all sides agree will be needed to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"It is an Israeli domestic matter. We don't want to poke our nose into it, but we fear this crisis will reflect in terms of military escalation or more building in the settlements," said lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
And "in case of early elections, the peace process will be put on hold," he added.
Olmert and Abbas agreed in November, at a US-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, to revive stalled peace efforts with an eye on reaching a deal on the outlines of a Palestinian state by year's end.
Since that optimistic pledge, however, causes for skepticism have piled up.
Israel has announced plans to pursue construction in Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian lands -- a core dispute. And the United States has said that its ally has not done enough to improve Palestinian quality of life.
Another major obstacle is Hamas's control of the Gaza Strip, launch site for frequent rocket or mortar attacks on Israel, which the Palestinian militant group does not recognize.
Bush, who visited the Abbas-controlled West Bank in January, has no plans to visit the Palestinian territories this time, nor to hold a joint summit with Olmert and Abbas -- though he will see the Palestinian leader in Egypt May 17.
"At this point, we think the bilateral negotiations are key. We can be encouraging those negotiations to go forward. A lot of it is better done, quite frankly, in private than in public," said Hadley.
The US president, often accused of ducking the peace effort to focus on the war in Iraq, could face Arab criticism for focusing his trip so much on Israel, where he will address the Knesset, the country's parliament.
"It's hard to remember a less auspicious time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacemaking than right now. The politics on the ground are absolutely miserable," says Middle East expert Jon Alterman.
Bush faces another crisis in Lebanon, where Israel foe Hezbollah -- the two fought a war in 2006 -- has led in recent days an armed campaign against forces loyal to the pro-Western government.
The volatile situation in war-torn Iraq, Iran's growing confidence, and Syria's defiance -- experts see many of these as signs of diminished US clout in the region, even as sky-high gasoline prices hurt US pocketbooks.
On May 16, Bush visits Saudi Arabia, which he hopes will help push the peace process but also play a larger role in stabilizing Iraq. He was also to express US concerns about the dramatic rise in oil prices.
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