Editor's note: The following was filed by the NBC News White House team traveling with the President in the Middle East.
The White House team had a unique experience today. We got to ride with the President on board Marine One as he flew from Ramallah to Bethlehem. The press often tags along on Air Force One, or some of the accompanying press planes. Rarely, however, do we get the chance to fly in the President's personal chopper, seeing him in a more relaxed mood as he moves from one set of meetings to another.
Mr. Bush arrived in the Holy Land on Wednesday, trying to nudge the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to go back to negotiations in an effort to find solutions to issues that have so far derailed all the previous peace processes.
Following his meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Bush headed to one of Christianity's holiest sites: The Church of the Nativity, the place where Christ is believed to have been born. We joined the President in Ramallah for his 20-minute flight as he made his way to the biblical town.
With the U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice sitting in front of him, Mr. Bush looked out the window as the craggy hills of the West Bank disappeared beneath us. One of his aides unfurled a map of the region next to him, as the President compared the cartographer's dots with the realities on the ground.
Palestinian towns dotted the hills, with their minarets and church steeples poking through the skyline. Across the valleys, Jewish settlements with their manicured lawns hugged the mountains. It is the future of these settlements that will prove to be very tricky. Removing the settlers, who number in the tens of thousands, will be much harder than uprooting a few families here and there. Without their removal however, it would be impossible to create a viable Palestinian state with contiguous territory--something that the President insists must happen for the peace process to be successful.
As we continued to fly, the President leaned further into the window. "Is that Jerusalem over there?" he asked as he pointed to the horizon.
The city, a holy site to all three monolithic religions of the world, is a series of neighborhoods, mostly Jewish in the west and Arab in the east. The two sides of the city eventually melt into each other. Sometimes, they are separated by nothing more than a road or an alleyway. Nowhere is that fact truer than in the old city, rich as it is in its layers of history and religious significance.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Bush also saw first-hand another of the hot issues here: the barrier that snakes its way through the West Bank. The Israelis call it their security wall, and point to the fact that the number of suicide bombers has been reduced dramatically since its construction. The Palestinians, however, claim it is nothing more than a land grab and a way of inflicting mass punishment on the whole population.
Issues like the settlers and the future of this city, have been described as unsolvable problems. Yet President Bush is asking peace negotiators to tackle these issues head-on and somehow break the impasse that has stalled this peace process in the past.
As we flew along, the President sought information from the Secretary of State, whose involvement in the peace process in recent months has made her increasingly familiar with the issues at stake. Yet, despite the obvious challenges that can be seen from the air, both Rice and the President knew full well that other issues still loomed large: the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the critical issue of water and so much more that could scuttle this latest diplomatic effort.
The Israelis and Palestinians have promised President Bush to try to reach a peace agreement that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of this year. It will not be easy.
Today, as we hitched a ride on Marine One, we witnessed first hand the president seeing for himself the scale of the very obstacles that have stood in the way of his numerous predecessors from claiming what would have been their greatest foreign policy achievement: Peace in the Middle East.