- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

JERUSALEM — President Bush arrived in Israel today to an enthusiastic welcome and declared himself optimistic that a peace agreement can be reached this year, despite continued rocket attacks from Palestinian terrorists that Israel says must stop for any deal to be reached.

“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. The U.S. Treasury yesterday 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, week-long swing through the Middle East, intended to promote peace and stability in the face of radical Islamic terrorism.

Mr. Bush continued today to offer a sanguine outlook for the peace process in Israel, but gave little to no detail on how that would be achieved.

However, he and his top advisers insisted that their most effective role will be to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to work this year on clearly defining the contours of a permanent Palestinian state.

National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley said that if Palestinians can begin to see economic improvement in Gaza that is due to Israeli aid, that, along with a clear goal for a Palestinian state, will help undermine the militant Hamas party.

But Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Hadley’s scenario was attractive but highly unlikely.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that 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 today fired 19 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel, prompting a missile attack in retaliation by the Israeli Army that killed four people and wounded two others, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Mr. Abbas, however, has virtually no control over the Gaza Strip, which Hamas seized earlier this year. Hamas continues to refuse the right of Israel to exist, and has rejected offers to negotiate with the Israeli government.

Mr. Bush will meet tomorrow with Mr. Abbas in Ramallah, and said he plans to 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, during a press conference with Mr. Olmert at the prime minister’s residence.

But Mr. Hadley admitted 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 Mr. Alterman, who noted that Mr. Olmert cannot make concessions without risking the ire of the Jewish people.

Mr. Bush’s trip to Israel follows on a U.S.-hosted November peace conference in Annapolis, Md., where both Israel and the Palestinians recommitted themselves to carry out their obligations under the road map.

The road map calls in the first phase for Israel to lift restrictions on movements in the West Bank, pull its army back from around Palestinian towns and freeze all new settlement activity.

Some of the larger issues involved include the right of Israel to defend itself against terrorism, the future of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides, the negotiation of Israel’s border, and the right of Palestinian refugees in camps outside Israel to return.

Mr. Bush again had strong words for Iran, in response to its threatening of U.S. ships in the Straight of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf on Sunday.

There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple. My advice to them is, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Hadley, on board Air Force One en route to Israel, said Iran’s actions came “very close to resulting in an altercation between our forces and their forces.”

“And it’s a warning to them: They’ve got to be very careful about this, because if it happens again, they are going to bear the consequences of that incident,” Mr. Hadley said.

The Iranian government today said that a tape of the Iranian boat maneuvers was a “fabrication.”

The U.S. Treasury today imposed financial sanctions on four persons responsible for providing money, personnel and weapons to insurgents in Iraq. One of the individuals, Ahmed Foruzandeh, is a brigadier general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force.

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