Bush sees Mideast peace treaty in a year


RAMALLAH, West Bank: January 10, 2008. (AFP) - US President George W. Bush on Thursday predicted that a Middle East peace treaty would be signed by the time he leaves office in a year, bringing the Palestinians their long-awaited state.

But on his first visit to the occupied West Bank, Bush said both Israel and the Palestinians had to make "tough choices" for peace to become a reality, reflecting deep divisions still dogging recently revived negotiations. He also took aim at the Islamist movement Hamas, whose bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip seven months ago split the Palestinians into two separately ruled entities and has complicated peacemaking. Bush, who is hoping to clinch a major foreign policy victory before he leaves office in January 2009 after the repeated failure of previous administrations to broker peace, said a Palestinan state had to be continguous. "Swiss cheese isn`t going to work when it comes to the territory of a state," he said at a press conference alongside Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank political capital Ramallah. "In order for there to be lasting peace... Abbas and Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert have to come together and make tough choices and I`m convinced they will," he said. "I believe it`s going to happen, that there`s going to be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office." Bush`s talks in Ramallah followed meetings with Israeli leaders on Wednesday at the start of a Middle East trip aimed at advancing the negotiations relaunched amid great fanfare six weeks ago but which have stumbled since. Although both Abbas and Olmert agreed on the eve of the Bush visit to start tackling the thorniest issues of the decades-old conflict -- borders, Jerusalem and refugees -- talks have been hit by discord over Jewish settlements and increasing violence in Gaza. Bush said he understood the frustrations of Palestinians who have to live with Israeli checkpoints and barricades and said Israel should "help not hinder" the Palestinian security forces. But Bush -- only the second US head of state to visit the Palestinian territories -- faces an difficult task to win over the hearts and minds of Palestinians, who are deeply sceptical about his ability to be an even-handed peace broker as Israel`s closest ally. "I don`t believe he will do anything for the Palestinians," said Mohammad Khaldi, a 64-year-old Ramallah resident. "If he wanted to really do something, he had six years for that and he didn`t do a single thing." Ramallah was under virtual curfew for the visit by the leader of the world`s biggest superpower, who was forced to travel by road from Jerusalem after thick fog grounded his Marine One helicopter. Abbas -- who is confined to his West Bank stronghold since Hamas routed his forces in Gaza in June 2007 -- rolled out a red carpet welcome for Bush, while about 4,000 law enforcement officers fanned out across Ramallah to ensure the president`s security. Security forces used tear gas and batons to break up a protest, charging about 200 demonstrators who were chanting "Bush, war criminal!", "Bush out!". Bush`s talks with Abbas were held in the Muqata government compound which was once virtually destroyed during an Israeli siege of then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, long boycotted by Bush as an obstacle to peace. And in a break with protocol of visiting foreign dignitaries, pointedly Bush did not stop at Arafat`s tomb. The US president also had harsh words for Hamas, saying the Islamist movement had brought nothing but "misery" to the Gaza Strip. After his talks with Olmert on Wednesday, Bush had warned that violence against Israel from the increasingly isolated territory had to stop before a peace deal could be sealed. "You can`t expect the Israelis, and I certainly don`t, to accept a state at their border which will become a launching pad for terrorist activity," he said. Olmert echoed the sentiment: "Gaza must be part of the package and as long as there will be terror from Gaza it will be very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding between us and the Palestinians." Since peace talks resumed in November, about 100 people, mostly gunmen, have been killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza aimed at halting militant rocket fire. Although Bush told Israel to dismantle wildcat settlement outposts in the West Bank, he did not call for a complete halt to settlement activity -- as repeatedly demanded by the Palestinians. Underscoring the scepticism about the prospects for peace, an opinion poll published in a Hebrew newspaper found that 77 percent of Israelis were doubtful that Bush`s visit will advance the negotiations.

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