Bush sees Middle East peace treaty in a year

United States President George Bush on Thursday predicted the signing of a Middle East peace treaty in a year and called for an end to Israel’s four-decade occupation of Palestinian land.

Giving an assessment of his talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the past two days, he said it was time for both to make “difficult choices” for peace to become a reality and allow the creation of a Palestinian state.

“There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967,” he said on his return to Jerusalem from his first trip to the West Bank, where he held talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

He said a peace deal should establish a state for the Palestinians “just like Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people”.

And as he prepared to leave later on Friday for a tour of Washington’s Gulf allies, he said: “I call upon the Arab countries to reach out to Israel, a step that is long overdue.”

Bush is in the Middle East hoping to clinch a major foreign policy victory before leaving office in January 2009 after the repeated failure of previous US administrations to broker peace.

He is seeking to advance peace talks that have been dogged since their revival in November last year by discord over Jewish settlement expansion and continuing Israeli Palestinian violence.

“I believe it’s going to happen, that there’s going to be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office,” he said in Ramallah.

But he took aim at the Islamist movement Hamas, whose bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip seven months ago split the Palestinians into two separately ruled entities and has complicated peacemaking.

And he said a Palestinian state had to be contiguous. “Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the territory of a state.”

Ahead of Bush’s latest statement, a US official said the president has named General William Fraser to supervise Israeli and Palestinian compliance with a 2003 roadmap blueprint for Middle East peace.

Although both Abbas and Olmert agreed on the eve of the Bush visit to start tackling the thorniest issues of the decades-old conflict—borders, Jerusalem and refugees—talks have stumbled.

Bush said he understood the frustrations of Palestinians who have to live with Israeli checkpoints and barricades and said Israel should “help not hinder” development of the Palestinian security forces.

He caught a glimpse of the problems facing Palestinians at Ramallah checkpoints after travelling by road from Jerusalem when fog grounded his Marine One helicopter, although Bush’s convoy swept through a barrier.

Only the second US head of state to visit the Palestinian territories, Bush faces a difficult task to win over the hearts and minds of Palestinians, who are deeply sceptical about his ability to be an even-handed peace broker as Israel’s closest ally.

“I don’t believe he will do anything for the Palestinians,” said Mohammad Khaldi, a 64-year-old Ramallah resident.

Ramallah was under virtual curfew for the visit by the leader of the world’s biggest superpower, with about 4 000 law enforcement officers ensuring the president’s security as Abbas gave him a red-carpet welcome.

The US president also had harsh words for Hamas, saying the Islamist movement had brought nothing but “misery” to the Gaza Strip.—AFP

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