Vice President Bush left last night for an 11-day visit to the Middle East designed to complement his intensifying presidential campaign and, his advisers hope, demonstrate Bush's support for Israel.
A White House official, asked yesterday whether there is a policy purpose to the Bush journey, responded, "Nothing but politics."
Bush, who is taking a camera crew from the Fund for America's Future, his political action committee, will visit Israel, Jordan and Egypt. He is scheduled to discuss the stalled peace process with leaders in all three countries, deliver an address to the Israeli Knesset and go sightseeing at the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings.
Administration officials have stressed that no diplomatic breakthroughs are envisioned in the moribund peace process. A senior official who briefed reporters on the trip said it is "ample reason" for Bush to go because no senior U.S. foreign policy officials have visited since Secretary of State George P. Shultz in May 1985.
Bush is expected to discuss with leaders the implications of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' unprecedented meeting with Moroccan King Hassan II. One senior official said the Peres-Hassan meeting has given additional justification to a Bush visit that otherwise had little diplomatic purpose.
The one prospect for concrete progress during Bush's visit would be an agreement on the disputed beachfront tract at Taba on the Israeli-Egyptian border in the Sinai Peninsula. Shultz said yesterday that there is movement in the negotiations, and State Department legal adviser Abraham D. Sofaer is in the Middle East seeking to resolve the dispute.
A tentative agreement on Taba would clear the way for Egypt to send its ambassador back to Israel and for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to meet with Peres.
Among other subjects, Bush is expected to inquire about the American hostages held in Lebanon. In Israel, he will discuss with senior officials the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the former civilian Navy intelligence analyst who has pleaded guilty to participating in an espionage conspiracy directed by Israeli officials. Bush is also expected to hold discussions on terrorism and will tell Mubarak that the United States is "prepared to help" with Egypt's serious economic difficulties.
But the Bush trip appears to have a larger purpose in his emerging presidential campaign.
According to American Jewish leaders and key Bush strategists, the vice president is a "blank slate," as one put it, in terms of his support for Israel. Although he is not viewed negatively by American Jews, Bush lacks the reputation of his rival, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), as a strong backer of Israel, they said.
President Reagan also is viewed as a strong supporter of Israel, but Bush advisers said the vice president needs to begin to create his own record, one of the key goals of the visit. "This is a classic example of the advantages of incumbency," said a Bush political strategist, noting the large news contingent following the vice president. "George Bush will get more out of this than a congressman" making a similar visit.
In addition to the camera crew -- to be used to making campaign commercials later on -- Bush is bringing an eight-member "advisory group" of American Jews on the Israel portion of his trip. Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the members are paying their way but will fly with Bush on Air Force Two.
Bush is the latest in a series of probable presidential aspirants to visit Israel recently. Kemp delivered an address Monday at the rollout of the controversial new Israeli advanced fighter plane, the Lavi, being built with some $1 billion in U.S. aid. Democratic contender Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) also visited Israel recently.