JERUSALEM — President Bush began a weeklong Middle East mission Wednesday by denouncing Iran as a threat to world peace and pledging to shore up flagging Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Three days after Iranian speedboats threatened a U.S. Navy convoy in the Strait of Hormuz, Bush joined Israeli leaders in issuing a stern warning to the Middle East nation.
"Iran was a threat, Iran is a threat and Iran will be a threat if the international community does not come together and prevent that nation from the development of the know-how to build a nuclear weapon," the president said after a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and key members of his coalition government.
Later in the day, the administration backed up the warning by imposing new unilateral financial sanctions on four alleged members of the Iranian military's Quds Force.
On the opening day of his first official visit to Israel, Bush vowed to "nudge" Israelis and Palestinians into progress. He called on Olmert to remove scores of illegal Jewish outposts in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank and warned Palestinian leaders that they'd have to gain control of militants in Gaza before a peace deal ever takes hold. Illegal outposts, Bush said, "ought to go."
The president and the U.S. military have accused the Quds Force of aiding Shiite Muslim militias that are fighting American forces in Iraq, but senior U.S. officials said late last month that Iran had scaled back the alleged export of weapons. The U.S. Treasury took no note Wednesday of the latest development.
"Iran trains, funds and provides weapons to violent Shiite extremist groups," said Stuart Levey, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury. "Today's action brings to light the lethal actions of these individuals, and we call on the international community to stand with us in isolating them from the global economy."
The president's Iran stance buoyed Israeli leaders, who'd been seeking assurances that the Bush administration wouldn't ease pressure in the wake of new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate estimates that Iran had mothballed its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"The NIE was a huge blow to Israel," said Michael Oren, the Israeli-American author of "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the present."
"Israel's assessment has not changed that Iran is nuclearizing and it is a mortal threat to Israel."
From the moment Bush arrived, Israeli leaders made sure that pushing along peace talks with the Palestinians didn't overshadow their persistent concerns about Iran, whose fiery president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has threatened Israel repeatedly.
Standing on the airport tarmac with Bush shortly after Air Force One touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed the U.S. president by challenging Iran.
"We take your advice not to underestimate the Iranian threat," Peres said.
"Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self-defense."
Israeli leaders have expressed concern that the new intelligence report will prevent Bush and the international community from pressing Iran and, if necessary, taking military action to destroy key nuclear sites in the Middle East nation.
Iran dominated the discussion Wednesday afternoon during Bush's 90-minute one-on-one meeting with Olmert, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.
Once the two leaders had finished, key advisers joined them to talk about how to inject some momentum into the sluggish peace talks. After the meetings, Bush vowed to apply pressure when necessary in hopes of reaching an agreement by the time he leaves office next January.
"I'm under no illusions," he conceded. "It's going to be hard work."
This is Bush's first trip to Israel since he traveled here in 1998 while he was the governor of Texas.
Before he arrived, hard-line Israelis symbolically set up two new illegal outposts in the West Bank to protest long-standing U.S. demands that scores of the renegade settlements be removed immediately as part of the international "road map" for peace.
"They ought to go," Bush said as Olmert stood by his side at a news conference. "We have been talking about it for four years. The agreement was to get rid of outposts — illegal outposts — and they ought to go."
Olmert, who's done little to address the issue since he took office nearly two years ago, again vowed to take action. But he also warned that peace talks won't get very far if Palestinians continue to stage daily rocket attacks on Israel.
Throughout the day Wednesday, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired at least eight crude Qassam rockets, two of which smashed into homes in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.
In response, the Israeli military fired artillery rounds at the launch site, killing one militant and two civilians, according to doctors in Gaza.
Bush said the problem would be topic number one when he met Thursday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"My first question is going to be to President Abbas: What do you intend to do about them?" Bush said. "Because, ultimately, for there to be an existence of a state, there has to be a firm commitment by a Palestinian government to deal with extremists."
But Abbas has little power to stop the rocket fire from Gaza. Fighters from the militant group Hamas routed Abbas loyalists from Gaza last summer in a brutal uprising that effectively split the Palestinian territories in two.
Since then, Bush and the international community have sought to bolster Abbas and his pro-Western caretaker government in the West Bank while isolating Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Peace talks are the central pillar of the Bush administration's plan for bolstering Abbas.
While Bush said he had no plans to impose a solution, he said he'd apply pressure to both sides when necessary.
"If you are asking me: Am I nudging them forward?" he said in response to a question. "Well, my trip was a pretty significant nudge."
Before his visit, Olmert and Abbas directed their negotiating teams to begin working on the most difficult issues at the heart of the conflict, including the borders of a Palestinian state and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides seek to claim as their capital.
But the negotiators have been hung up discussing process, and there's little optimism among many key players that the two sides can reach a deal by year's end.
As for pressure, "If it looks like there needs to be a little pressure, Mr. Prime Minister, you know me well enough to know I'll be more than willing to provide it," Bush said, adding: "I will say the same thing to President Abbas tomorrow, as well."
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article.)
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