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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 December 2007, 02:22 GMT
Bush announces Middle East visit
Ehud Olmert, George W Bush, Mahmoud Abbas (left to right) at White House - 28/11/2007
Bush will be hoping to promote a good atmosphere for further talks
US President George W Bush will visit the Middle East in January, the White House has said.

The announcement comes a week after Mr Bush hosted talks at which Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to seek a peace deal before the end of 2008.

Iran will also be a key issue, after US intelligence said on Monday that the country is not actively developing nuclear weapons.

Mr Bush said Iran remained dangerous and could restart a bomb programme.

Israeli fears

The White House did not confirm Israeli reports that the president would visit Israel during his Middle East tour.

But the BBC's Justin Webb in Washington says such a visit is highly likely.

Natanz uranium enrichment facility, Iran

It would be Mr Bush's first to Israel as US president.

And, our correspondent adds, any visit there would take on a particular significance in the wake of the US intelligence community's change of heart on Iran.

The National Intelligence Estimate said with "high confidence" that it believed Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, but that it was continuing to enrich uranium.

Responding to the new assessment, the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said he believed Iran posed a threat to the entire world, which must be prepared to deal with this threat and foil it.

Annapolis hopes

Mr Bush hosted the Annapolis conference last week, bringing together 44 countries and leading to an agreement to hold the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for seven years.

Israeli and Palestinian teams will meet for their first discussions on 12 December, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will continue one-to-one meetings with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas next year.

KEY ISSUES
Jerusalem holy sites

"We will use our power to help you as you come up with the necessary decisions to lay out a Palestinian state that will live side by side in peace with Israel," Mr Bush said at the White House, when he welcomed the two leaders there a day after the Annapolis meeting.

However, a number of difficult issues would need to be resolved, including the status of Jerusalem, delineation of borders and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

On Tuesday Israel announced plans to build more than 300 new houses in a disputed neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, prompting Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to urge US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to intervene.

"This is undermining Annapolis," said Mr Erekat.

Another complicating factor is the Hamas faction, which controls the Gaza Strip. Bitter rivals of Mr Abbas's Fatah faction, Hamas leaders have dismissed the process begun in Annapolis, saying it will not achieve the state the Palestinians want.



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