Bush in Jerusalem to boost peace negotiations

Bush in Jerusalem to boost Mideast peace negotiations, address Iran
JERUSALEM "We see a new opportunity for peace here in the holy land and for freedom across the region," an optimistic Bush said upon landing in Tel Aviv.

Bush is trying to build momentum for stalled Mideast peace talks and clear up confusion about whether the United States is serious about confronting Iran about its suspected nuclear ambitions.

Israeli President Shimon Peres underscored Bush's hopes -- considered unrealistic by many in the Mideast -- to bridge decades of differences in just one year and reach agreement for the establishment of a Palestinian statement.

"The next 12 months will be a moment of truth," Peres told Bush at an airport arrival ceremony complete with red carpets and a military band. "It must not yield just words."

Unpopular at home, Bush was greeted here with smiles and warm handshakes.

"You are our strongest and most trusted ally in the battle against terrorism and fundamentalism and a strong supporter of our quest for peace and stability," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the president.

Bush also stressed the deep U.S.-Israel ties.

"The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state," Bush said.

That remark lent support to Israel on one of the core issues in the conflict. The Palestinians oppose calling Israel a Jewish state, saying it rules out the right of Palestinian refugees to return to lost properties in Israel. They say the fate of the refugees is a matter for negotiations. Bush has referred to Israel as Jewish state in the past but the reference -- here in the region -- had special significance.

Pledging to stand with Israel against terrorists, Bush said, "We will do more than defend ourselves. We seek lasting peace. "

Bush's challenge is to convince skeptical governments that, with just a year remaining in his presidency and Americans deep in the process of selecting his successor, he is willing to devote the time and effort necessary to bridge decades of differences in this troubled region.

On the eve of Bush's arrival, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to have negotiators begin work immediately on the so-called final status issues. These include the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine, completing claims to the holy city of Jerusalem, the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and Israeli security concerns.

Still, expectations of success are low, and no one is predicting big breakthroughs as Bush visits Israel, the Palestinian-governed West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

There's been little headway since Bush hosted a splashy Mideast conference in November in Annapolis, Md., and launched the first major peace talks in seven years.

The Palestinians are angry 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. Israel, for its part, has demanded that Palestinian forces do more to rein in militants in the West Bank. Since Olmert and Abbas last met, two Israelis were killed in the West Bank, and Israeli security forces say members of Abbas' Fatah movement were responsible.

Bush says he also will work to explain a new U.S. intelligence report that concluded -- contrary to earlier White House assertions -- that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. That finding undercut U.S. efforts to build support for sanctions against Iran and raised questions about whether the White House was losing its interest in confronting Iran.

Bush says the report proved that Iran was a threat and is a threat. He says Iran is still enriching uranium and could restart its weapons program.

Bush said a confrontation in which Iranian boats threatened to blow up U.S. Navy vessels in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday was a "provocative act."

"It is a dangerous situation," he said. "They should not have done it, pure and simple. ... I don't know what their thinking was, but I'm telling you what my thinking was. I think it was a provocative act."

Peres said Iran should not underestimate Israel's resolve for self defense. Peres also called on Bush to help "stop the madness" of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. He and Olmert both stressed solid U.S.-Israel relations.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as President Bush flew from Washington to Tel Aviv, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the incident "almost resulted in an exchange of fire between our forces and the Iranian forces, and the Iranians need to be on notice that they are fishing in troubled waters here."

"This is a provocative act -- not a smart thing to do, and they are going to have to take responsibility for the consequences, if they do it again," Hadley said, adding that his comments should not be seen as a threat.

Bush is meeting with Olmert and other top Israeli officials in Jerusalem, the ancient city that both sides claim for a capital, following arrival ceremonies in Tel Aviv. Bush sees Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Bush also plans visits to Christian holy sites and Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.

The two leaders pledged to have negotiators begin work immediately on the major issues that would frame a Palestinian state, and which have hung previous attempts to secure a deal. These issues include the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine, completing claims to the holy city of Jerusalem, the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and Israeli security concerns.

In the six weeks since Bush declared at an international gathering in Annapolis, Maryland, that "the time is right" to make peace, two perennial obstacles to Mideast peacemaking have already reared up: Israeli settlements and violence.

Even before formal talks began on Dec. 12, Israel announced plans to build homes in areas claimed by the Palestinians. Two Israeli hikers were killed later by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank, and Israeli attacks have killed dozens of militants in the Gaza Strip in response to ongoing rocket fire. Israeli troops also kept the West Bank militant hotbed of Nablus under siege for several days.

"There have been a lot of obviously distractions," Hadley said aboard Bush's plane. "By distractions I mean some serious issues that have appeared. Palestinians are very concerned obviously about settlements, the Israelis are very concerned obviously about the rocket attacks coming out of Gaza. These issues need to be addressed."

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