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Bush prods Israel, PNA for peace
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During his first leg of the eight-day Middle East trip on Wednesday, US President George W. Bush asked both Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions to nurture a peace deal by the end of his presidency.



US President George W. Bush (R) shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (L) while President Shimon Peres (C) watches, after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv January 9, 2008.


Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush underlined that a two-state solution to the chronic Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interest of the world.


Outpost had 'to go'


"I fully understand there will be some painful compromises," Bush said, hours after his arrival on Wednesday noon to start visiting its close ally Jewish state in hope of pushing forward the newly revived peace process of the Middle East. "There will be stakes and the opportunities ... I really want to see two state living side by side," he added.


The stakes mean different for the Israelis and Palestinians.


The Palestinians are furious about Israeli plans to build new housing in east Jerusalem and the West Bank -- areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.  


The Palestinians and Israel held two rounds of peace talks after the U.S.-hosted Annapolis conference late November but failed to yield any tangible advances mainly due to the disputed settlement activities.


The settlement issue, together with the Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, is the three most complex and difficult ones for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is high on the agenda of the talks between Bush and Olmert.


Bush told Olmert publicly that the unauthorized settlement outposts established in the West Bank had "to go".


At the same time, Olmert touched upon the Qassam rocket barrage from the Gaza Strip on southern Israel on Wednesday, highlighting the threat from Palestinian militant groups.


"Gaza is part of a package," he said. "There will be no peace unless terror is stopped and stopped everywhere."


High hopes underlined


For the first time since he took office in 2000, the U.S. president is visiting Israel and later the Palestinian territories, which is aimed at advancing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.


"I come with high hopes, and the role of the United States will be to foster a vision of peace," Bush said during a meeting earlier with Israeli President Shimon Peres.


"The role of the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian leadership is going to do the hard work necessary to define a vision."


Since the international peace conference hosted by Bush in Annapolis, during which Israel and the Palestinians pledged to strive for a final-status agreement within a year, talks between the two sides have been low-key with no progress evident.


The sense of an impasse intensified following contentious meetings regarding continued Israeli settlements construction in East Jerusalem.


However, Olmert assured Bush during the press conference that both Israelis and Palestinians are "very seriously" trying to move forward and make the vision of a two-state solution a reality.


"Israel is committed to negotiations with PNA (Palestinian National Authority), and to talks on core issues," the prime minister said, adding that "I am more than willing to make difficult compromises should they lead us to the result we have been dreaming of for so many years."


A day before Bush's arrival, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to instruct their negotiating teams to start talking about the three core issues.


Israeli Shas Party Chairman Eli Yihai, however, reiterated his opposition to negotiating with the Palestinians over the core issues, saying that Abbas was not a strong enough leader to fulfill his commitments.


"We cannot negotiate with a president who only has control over one quarter of his people," Yihai told Channel 2, adding that "peace is vital, but not a virtual peace."


Seeking alliance against Iran


Regarding the issue of Iranian threat deemed by Bush as one of the most vital topics during his trip, both Bush and Olmert made it clear that it must be taken seriously.


Bush told media before leaving Washington that part of the reason for his trip to the Middle East is to warn countries in the region that nuclear-armed Iran will be a danger to the Mideast region.


Despite his country's National Intelligence Estimate report released in December saying that Iran halted its nuclear weapon program in 2003, Iran still poses a threat to world peace, Bush told Olmert.


"Iran is a threat and Iran will be a threat if the international community doesn't come together to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon," he said.


Olmert said that he was encouraged by U.S. position on this issue.


Bush's visit came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. over a confrontation between Iranian gunboats and U.S. warships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.


He will also visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the only nation on the course that he has visited before.


(Xinhua News Agency January 10, 2008)

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