US President George W. Bush on Thursday called Israeli settlement expansion an "impediment" to the success of revived peace efforts and urged the Jewish state to follow through on its pledge to dismantle unauthorized settler outposts.
Speaking less than a week before his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank, Bush voiced optimism at the prospects for securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of 2008, a goal set at last November's Annapolis conference that has been viewed with some skepticism.
Bush during Thursday's interview (Photo: Reuters)
Bush said he would use his trip to keep up pressure on both sides, including making clear to Israelis his
concern about continued Jewish settlement activity.
"I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is, that can be, you know, an impediment to success," he told Reuters in an interview. "The unauthorized outposts for example need to be dismantled, like the Israelis said they would do."
Bush also said on Thursday that part of the reason for his trip to the Middle East is "absolutely" about efforts to contain Iran's influence in the region.
Bush said that on his trip that starts next week to Israel and Arab countries he expects questions about a US National Intelligence Estimate last month that said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in
"I will clarify to them that the NIE means that Iran is still a danger," he said. "I will remind them that a country that can suspend a program can easily start a program."
There will be no three-way meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinians President Mahmoud Abbas and US President George W. Bush during the latter's visit to the region next week, according to White House officials.
US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley gave a briefing on Thursday night at the White House in which he went over the president's schedule throughout the voyage. The White House is not publicizing an exact schedule apparently for security reasons.
This will be Bush's first trip to Israel since he assumed the presidency in 2001.
The American leader is set to arrive to the Muqata compound in Ramallah to meet with President Abbas.
Hadley said that: "the trip follows the Annapolis meeting, and offers an opportunity for the President to discuss with Israelis and Palestinians their efforts toward a negotiated peace and achievement of the
President's vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.
"He will also encourage broader Israeli-Arab reconciliation, and regional support for Palestinian institution-building efforts, as they build the institutions for a Palestinian state."
Yitzhak Benhorin and Roni Sofer contributed to this report