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Bush drills for Middle East deals

Israel's demand to remove Iran's threat before a Palestinian deal could hamper President Bush's effort for peace.

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Although a lame duck, President Bush can use his trip to the Middle East this week to achieve better success with the region's main threat, Iran. He enjoys backing in Congress for his tough stand on Iran (unlike on Iraq). This bipartisanship may give him leeway to set a new course.

The nine-day, six-nation trip will deal with many issues, such as Mr. Bush's recent push for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. He now predicts an agreement by year's end.

But even that goal is hindered by Iran's dangerous meddling in the region. Israel has set forth a critical linkage: It wants Iran's threat all but removed before it will allow a Palestinian state to be created on its border.

Israel's concern for its security, of course, is understandable. Attacks on its civilians are all too real or possible from bomb-lobbing militant groups backed by Iran: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon. And Iran is still capable of creating a missile and nuclear threat, even if it has apparently hit the pause button in making an atomic bomb, as US intelligence claims.

But the US must set its own path in deciding whether Iran's influence can really be eliminated or simply contained. After all, Iran is a regional giant in population, oil wealth, and potential for meddling.

With the Iran question as the real substance of the trip, Bush's talks with the main US Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, are critical. His Jan. 14 visit to the oil kingdom will be a key step toward a Middle East peace.

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