Eyeing White House, Texas governor tours Israel

JERUSALEM — On his first trip to Israel, Texas Gov. George W. Bush dined this week with the prime minister, visited holy sites and toured the Golan in a helicopter.

Considered a possible presidential candidate in 2000, Bush was tight-lipped throughout his three-day trip, saying he is only here to "learn" and refusing to give opinions until returning to Texas. But he did call the country "a great place" and said he hopes to come back.

His trip is apparently meant to burnish his foreign affairs credentials in advance of a possible race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

Bush arrived in Israel on Sunday with three other Republican governors, Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts, Michael Leavitt of Utah and Mark Racicot of Montana.

The National Jewish Coalition, a Washington-based Republican organization, sponsored their trip.

"We're taking four governors who are rising stars in the Republican Party, have important constituencies, and have never been to Israel," said Matt Brooks, NJC's executive director. "It's an opportunity to give them an introduction to the issues and complexities of the region."

The delegation met with just about every significant Israeli official, including Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and Uzi Landau, who heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

They dined with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday night.

Discussions throughout the trip focused on the peace process, Israel's domestic political situation and strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States.

On Tuesday, the group took a helicopter tour of the Golan Heights. Plans to visit the settlement of Alfei Menashe were cancelled, apparently due to concerns about possible negative reaction from Palestinians, a Foreign Ministry official was quoted as telling the Associated Press.

In talks with Sharon, Bush asked his opinion of U.S. involvement in the peace process, according to a participant in the meeting.

Sharon responded by calling the United States' long-term contribution "invaluable." Sharon asserted that without American involvement, "it would have been impossible to reach the peace agreements we have reached already."

However, he added, "it is incumbent upon the two sides to try to reach agreements on their own before asking for U.S. assistance."

Bush also reportedly asked Sharon how Israel intends to proceed with the Palestinians.

Sharon presented the governors with maps of the first phase of the pullback under the Wye accord. He also reviewed the region's water crisis and outlined a long-term plan for building regional desalination plants.

Mordechai briefed the delegation about the peculiarities of the Middle East and praised Bush's father, the former U.S. president.

"We in Israel very much admire your father, President Bush, for the brave stance he took in the Gulf War," Mordechai said. "But Saddam Hussein is still president and this symbolizes more than anything the absurdities of the region in which we live."

In talks with Landau, the delegation discussed Israel-U.S. strategic cooperation in light of behavior of states such as Iran and Iraq. The other topic was Israel-U.S. cooperation on defense against ballistic missiles.

The delegation visited the Old City of Jerusalem, Yitzhak Rabin's grave and Yad Vashem.

On their way to Israel, Bush and his wife, Laura, spent a week in Italy to visit their daughter, who is studying there. They also spent last Friday in Cairo, where Bush met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.