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Gore's Mideast trip doubles as campaign boost

With the crowd applauding wildly, Vice President Al Gore spoke of Israel's destiny as the "promised land."

But Gore's current dip into troubled Middle East waters also is limbering him up for a crusade to different hallowed ground: the Oval Office.

Gore's four-day trip to the Middle East, which kicked off with Israel's 50th anniversary celebrations, offered the opportunity to buff up his foreign policy credentials as the 2000 presidential campaign begins.

Doing what his Democratic rivals cannot, Gore represented the White House in efforts to nudge along the stalled Middle East peace process.

The vice president held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and met late Saturday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

After a one-hour talk with Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Gore said he thought some progress has been made in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but the toughest issues still have to be faced.

Gore and the Israeli prime minister were to have another meeting at Tel Aviv's airport before the vice president's departure for Cairo early today, an American official said.

"This was not a negotiation and I am not a negotiator," Gore said. "I came here not only to celebrate Israel's achievements but also to restate our ironclad commitment to Israel's security and well-being in its next half-century and beyond."

During a 24-hour visit to Saudi Arabia that ended Saturday, Gore met with King Fahd _ an important U.S. ally _ and his apparent political successor, Crown Prince Abdullah.

But most important on his trip, Gore was able to reinforce his bond with Israelis and, in turn, court the support of Jewish-American voters.

Gore's standing appeared to shoot upward, particularly after he used snippets of Hebrew in his speeches.

"He seems like a friend of Israel. Whether he's really more friendly than Clinton I don't know, but he is certainly more enthusiastic in one thing _ his efforts to learn Hebrew," said Hila Saguy, 25, a pharmacist.

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