- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Bush got a small taste of Palestinian frustrations during an unprecedented visit to the West Bank yesterday and won over at least some of the territory’s residents with his public support for a Palestinian state.

Winding up two full days of meetings with regional leaders later in Jerusalem, the president said he had done his best to clarify the concessions for peace that are needed by both sides.

“Now is the time to make difficult choices,” he said. “The establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue.” Mr. Bush added that “a peace agreement should happen and can happen by the end of this year.”

With his helicopter grounded by dense fog, Mr. Bush was forced to travel by motorcade to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, thus getting a firsthand look at the Israeli checkpoints that have become a major source of frustration for the Palestinians.

“My whole motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped,” Mr. Bush said later. “I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person.”

West Bank residents, some of whom followed the televised visit through appliance-store windows, appeared delighted that the American president — the first to visit the West Bank — should have a personal experience of their situation.

“Today the weather helped the Palestinian people,” said Hafez Barghouti, the editor of the daily newspaper Al Hayat Al Jedida. “Bush was forced to come by car and not by helicopter.”

No major concessions were announced on either side during the two days, but Mr. Bush concluded the visit with a clearer sense of what must be done to reach an agreement this year, and a broad hint that he will be back.

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

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,” he said.

Mr. Bush admitted that the issue of Jerusalem’s future may be the most difficult issue, but did not take a position on how that or any other problem should be resolved.

“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.”

Mr. Bush did emphasize that the new Palestinian state must be contiguous — not broken up by Israeli roads and settlements — and said the Israelis must not stand in the way of Palestinian efforts to build up their security forces and government institutions.

Many Palestinians said they were insulted by Mr. Bush’s refusal to visit the grave of Yasser Arafat — the former Palestinian leader who died in a Paris hospital in November 2004 after having been isolated in Ramallah by Israel with Mr. Bush’s blessing.

But Mr. Barghouti, the newspaper editor, expressed satisfaction that Mr. Bush ultimately agreed to appear at a press conference under Mr. Arafat’s picture.

“For the first time, Bush spoke about the settlements as an obstacle to peace, and not just the illegal outposts,” he said. “When the Americans talk about a Palestinian state and building the infrastructure for the Palestinian state, it’s very important.”

The last U.S. president to visit the Palestinian territories was Bill Clinton in 1998. Coming two years before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, he visited Gaza rather than the West Bank and was welcomed on the streets.

“It was different political weather back then,” conceded Mr. Barghouti.

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

The U.S. has pledged about $500 million toward a $5.6 billion package, but some of that aid must be approved by Congress in the upcoming federal budget.

Mr. Bush arrived in Israel Wednesday and held meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders.

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

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