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Bush sets high bar for Israeli and Palestinian leadership
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Prior to his visit to Jerusalem, US President George W. Bush topped off his trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority Thursday by setting a high bar for Israeli and Palestinian leadership: peace by the end of 2008.


Prior to his arrival in Jerusalem, Bush had indicated that he might settle for a common vision between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.


Speaking to reporters on Thursday, however, Bush said that he believed the two sides would sign a peace deal by the end of this year.


"While territory is an issue for both parties to decide, I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous," he said.


Bush's first visit to the country was hailed as a much-needed push for the peace process, which has stalled on several key issues since the U.S.-backed peace summit in Annapolis last November.


Despite promises by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume the Road Map, the two leaders have disagreed on several key issues including Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.


Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been a perennial stumbling block in the negotiations for a final status agreement. Though the Israeli government has sworn to freeze all settlement expansion, construction is ongoing through tenders issued in 2006 and the first quarter of 2007. Earlier this month, a number of tenders were issued for Har Homa, a suburb of Jerusalem that is officially over the Green Line that marks territories earmarked for a future Palestinian state.


Bush took an unusually hard line towards Israeli settlements in his visit, stressing that the establishment of a Palestinian state was long overdue, and that Israel needed to end the occupation that began in 1967.


Officials in Olmert's office said the prime minister was taking the remarks to mean an end to all of Israeli settlements and illegal outposts in the West Bank, while reaching a special compromise on the city of Jerusalem.


Throughout Bush's stay in Israel, Olmert has made it clear that the city of Jerusalem is a special case, and that no part of the holy city will be handed back in the near future, said the official.


In order to reinforce his commitment to evacuating settlements in the West Bank, Israeli security officials have announced that they will evacuate up to nine illegal outposts in the coming week.


Right-wing members of Olmert's coalition appeared willing to accept the outposts evacuation, in exchange for the government commitment to maintaining a united front on the issue of Jerusalem.


Abbas, meanwhile, reiterated his demand that Jerusalem be established as a shared capital.


"Jerusalem as its capital and an end to the refugee problem, in accordance with UN decisions," said Abbas. "The Palestinian people, who are committed to peace, want to move freely in their country, with no roadblocks, (separation) fence or settlements... We want to see a different future, without thousands of prisoners in jail and innocent deaths. We want to stop the closure."


Preliminary polls taken by Palestinian and Israeli media outlets indicate that both populations are hesitant to express optimism over the current peace process, with less than one-third of either populations believing it possible that a peace agreement will be reached by the end of 2008.


(Xinhua News Agency January 11, 2008)

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