President Bush embarked Friday on what is shaping up as the riskiest diplomatic trip of his presidency, landing in this graceful city to kick off two ambitious initiatives: repairing frayed relations with Europe and bringing peace to the Middle East.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, traveling with the president aboard Air Force One, expressed optimism that both efforts will succeed.
“It’s not to say that we didn’t have a bad run with some of our closest friends and allies and partners. But you move on,” Powell said. “Politics and diplomacy is about moving on.”
In the Middle East, Powell said, the dynamic of the conflict has shifted in the last year and created a window of opportunity for peace. To that end, the United States is putting together a “coordination group” to work “24/7" with the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“Don’t think of it in terms of a major envoy, with constant negotiations,” Powell said. “We’re not into negotiations yet. We are in the early stages, where we’ve got to get them to talk to one another at different levels.”
Powell said the administration is in the process of naming a leader for the coordination group, to be composed of American officials.
The choice of Krakow as the first stop on Bush’s six-nation, seven-day tour was no accident: It sent pointed messages to the many heads of state the president will encounter in the coming days.
For instance, the first public event on Bush’s schedule today is a visit to the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, in the placid countryside outside this city.
Bush plans to lay a wreath at the memorial beside the crematories at Birkenau, where more than a million of Europe’s Jews were killed during World War II.
Although many presidents and world leaders have paid homage here to the victims of the Holocaust, Bush’s decision to do so on the eve of his Middle East peace drive honors the special suffering of the Jewish people.
To Arabs, the death camp visit is meant to underscore Israel’s right to exist. To Israelis, it is a tribute to their past at a time when the president is urging concessions for the sake of the future. It also reprises a rationale for Bush’s decision to use force against Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq -- a regime the president described many times as evil.
“We must confront evil when we find it, and there’s no better place to remind people that there has been evil in the world than at Auschwitz,” Bush told Polish television station TVP on the eve of his departure from Washington. The White House released a transcript of those remarks Friday.
Bush’s second major event today will be a speech on transatlantic relations, which White House aides said will try to leave disagreements over Iraq behind and lay out an agenda for the future.
Delivering this message from Poland is deliberate. Poland is the largest country in the so-called “new Europe,” and it supported the war against Iraq in part because its experience of Soviet tyranny gave it an explicit reason to oppose tyranny in Iraq.
“I’m going to say in my speech, Poland needs to be in the EU [European Union] and Poland can be a friend of the United States, and the two are not in conflict,” the president said.
“I’m also going to remind the countries of Europe that we must work together. We don’t need divides between us. We need to work together to achieve big objectives ... to fight terror, to fight global poverty, to fight AIDS and to promote freedom.”
Poland was one of only three nations besides the U.S. -- the others were Britain and Australia -- to send troops to serve on the ground in Iraq. The visit to Poland is also part of the White House’s campaign to lavish favors and attention on countries who assisted in the war.
Later today, Bush will begin a more difficult portion of his trip, traveling first to Russia and then to France -- two of the staunchest opponents of the war.
In a separate interview with foreign print journalists, Bush said both the U.S. and France will have to work to achieve reconciliation.
“I’ve got work to do to convince the skeptics in France that the intentions of the United States are positive,” the president said. “And the French leadership has got work to do to convince the American people that they are concerned about the security of our country.”
After meetings in France with Group of 8 and other world leaders, Bush will fly to the Middle East for two summits: one with Arab leaders in Egypt and a second in Jordan with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
In preparation, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom held talks in Jerusalem on Friday with a pair of senior U.S. envoys, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council.
Prior to the summit in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba, Israel is expected to begin making good on pledges offered during a meeting Thursday between Sharon and Abbas. Among them is an easing of the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which would allow thousands of Palestinians to return to badly needed jobs inside Israel.
Israel also promised to release some Palestinian prisoners. Israeli officials indicated that about 100 detainees -- approximately one-tenth of those being held in military detention without trial or charges -- were expected to be freed soon.
Public opinion polls suggest that after 32 months of wrenching conflict, Israelis regard the U.S.-spearheaded peace overtures with a mixture of hope and cynicism.
A survey in Friday’s editions of the national daily newspaper Maariv indicated that a majority of Israelis who were queried -- 55% -- supported the decision of the Sharon government to approve the internationally designed “road map” for peace and move ahead with negotiations. But only 36% thought the peace plan will lead to an accord with the Palestinians.
The poll, conducted by the Gal Hehadash agency, also indicated that most Israelis favor ending the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with 62% supporting a troop pullback. The road map calls for a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities and towns.
Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report.