- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Bush today concluded his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and said that he had done his best to clarify the concessions needed by both sides for a peace agreement, while a top adviser said the president will likely return to Israel this year.

“Now is the time to make difficult choices,” Mr. Bush said, after returning to Jerusalem from the West Bank, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “The establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue.”

Mr. Bush said that “a peace agreement should happen and can happen by the end of this year.”

After two full days of meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Mr. Bush outlined specific areas where action is needed.

He broke little new ground, however, focusing again on the need for Israel to curb settlement expansion and end their occupation of the West Bank. Mr. Bush also called for better Palestinian efforts to halt terrorism, particularly by Hamas militants.

But National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley said that Mr. Bush’s already travel-heavy final year in office will likely include at least one return trip to the Holy Land.

“I think you can expect to see him again in the region, and maybe more, before his time is up,” Mr. Hadley said.

Mr. Hadley, usually a staid presence in front of the press, grew unusually animated when he talked about the need for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to negotiate their differences, no matter how difficult they may be.

“Address these important issues, but let’s not let them get in the way of the big game here, which is … a historic opportunity that may not come again to negotiate a peace between parties who are committed for peace,” Mr. Hadley said, raising his voice and pounding the rostrum with his hand.

Mr. Bush admitted that the issue of Jerusalem’s future may be the most difficult issue of all, but did not take a position on how it should be resolved. He has avoided stands on all of the “core issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, choosing instead to play the part of facilitator.

“I arrived and it nudged the process forward,” Mr. Bush said. “But the only lasting peace will be achieved when the duly elected leaders of the respective peoples do the hard work.”

On one of the most troublesome points — Mr. Abbas’ lack of control over the Gaza Strip and Hamas’ firing of rockets into Israel — Mr. Bush continued to insist that the peace process must produce a “vision” of a Palestinian state that will cause the Palestinian people to switch their allegiance to Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party.

“Do you want a future based upon a Democratic state, or do you want the same old stuff?” Mr. Bush said. “That’s a choice that I’m confident, if the Palestinian people are given, they will choose peace.”

Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 and then wrested control of the Gaza strip from Fatah earlier this year. Mr. Bush said they have delivered “nothing but misery” to the Palestinian people.

Mr. Abbas, during a press conference with Mr. Bush at the Muqata, his run down compound of offices here, said that Hamas has engaged in a “coup” and “must retreat.”

Hamas militants yesterday launched 19 rockets into southern Israel, prompting an attack by the Israeli army that killed four persons and injured two. Mr. Bush said again today that Israel must be able to defend itself from such attacks.

But Mr. Bush emphasized the Israel must not stand in the way of Palestinian efforts to build up their security forces and government institutions.

Mr. Bush and the Israelis, along with the Quartet of the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, are negotiating economic aid to rebuild Palestinian governmental and security institutions.

“I firmly believe that the Palestinians are entrepreneurial people who, if just given a chance, will be able to grow their business and provide jobs,” Mr. Bush said.

The U.S. has pledged about $500 million toward a $5.6 billion package negotiated by Quartet representative Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister. But some of that aid must be approved by Congress in the upcoming federal budget.

Mr. Bush is the first U.S. president to visit Ramallah, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, and then returned to Palestinian control in 1995 under the Oslo Accords.

Former Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat was under house arrest here from 2002 to 2004 while the Muqata was under siege from the Israeli army, and is buried here.

President Clinton was the first U.S. president to visit a Palestinian territory. He visited the Gaza Strip in 1998.

Mr. Bush arrived in Israel yesterday and held meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders. After his meetings with the Palestinians today, Mr. Bush met with Mr. Blair, then with Mr. Olmert again.

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Olmert agreed in November at a U.S.-hosted peace conference in Annapolis, Md., to reach an agreement by the end of 2008 on “all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception.”

Besides Jerusalem, settlements, and Hamas attacks on Israel, the other main issues facing the two sides are Israel’s border, and the right of Palestinian refugees in camps outside Israel to return.

Mr. Bush, who in 2002 became the first U.S. president to call for an independent Palestinian state, said today that there should be “mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.”

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