Bush hopes for Mideast peace in ‘08

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JERUSALEM — President Bush arrived in Israel yesterday to an enthusiastic welcome and said he was optimistic that a peace agreement could be reached this year.

Rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorists, which Israel insists must stop before any agreement can be reached, continued.

“I come as an optimistic person and a realistic person,” Mr. Bush told Israeli President Shimon Peres, during a meeting at Mr. Peres’ home. “I come with high hopes.”

Mr. Peres called him “a great friend,” and said that Israel was “a land and a people that loves deeply the United States of America, and without any reservation.”

On the subject of Iran, Mr. Bush promised swift retribution if there is any escalation of recent threatening activity by Iranian naval vessels against U.S. ships, and the U.S. Treasury imposed new financial sanctions against an Iranian military officer for fueling the insurgency in Iraq.

Mr. Bush’s visit to Israel is the beginning of a six-country, weeklong swing through the Middle East, intended to promote peace and stability in the face of radical Islamic terrorism. He continued to offer a sanguine outlook for the peace process in Israel, but gave little details about how he would achieve it.

He and his top advisers insist their most effective role is to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to work this year on clearly defining a permanent Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday said Israel is committed to upholding its part of the road map agreed to in 2003, but said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must stop the firing of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants.

“There will be no peace unless terror is stopped, and terror will have to be stopped everywhere,” Mr. Olmert said. “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.”

Hamas yesterday fired 19 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel, prompting a missile attack in retaliation by the Israeli army that killed four persons and wounded two others, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Mr. Abbas, however, has almost no control over the Gaza Strip, which Hamas seized last year. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and has rejected offers to negotiate with the Israeli government.

Mr. Bush, who will meet Mr. Abbas today in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said he would press the Palestinian leader on the issue of rocket attacks.

“My first question to President Abbas is going to be, ‘What do you intend to do about it? … And what can we do to help you?’ ” Mr. Bush said at a press conference with Mr. Olmert at the prime minister’s residence.

But National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said that unless and until Hamas — which rose to power in a 2006 parliamentary election — loses popular support from the Palestinian people, Mr. Abbas will have little leverage against Hamas.

“The underlying problem … is that these sides are far apart and neither one has the standing in its own society to give the other side what they want,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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