TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – U.S. President George W. Bush said Friday that he would return to the Mideast in May to continue pushing the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peace treaty and celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary.
“There’s a good chance for peace and I want to help you,” Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the airport here, where he boarded Air Force One, ending his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President, thank you very much for your invitation to come back. I’m accepting it now,” Bush said on the tarmac.
From Israel, Bush was headed to Kuwait, a tiny oil-rich nation his father fought a war over and one of only two invited guests to skip the splashy Annapolis, Maryland, rollout Bush hosted for the new U.S.-backed peace talks.
Getting an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact signed would be an important milestone in Bush’s presidential legacy. During his two days of formal talks with Olmert, Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush laid out U.S. expectations, saying that the two sides needed to get serious talks started posthaste. On his way to visit Sunni Arab allies, Bush said he’d would ask them to reach out to the Jewish state.
“I carry with me a message of optimism about the possibilities of a peace treaty,” Bush said with the two Israeli leaders. “I will share with them my thoughts about you and President Abbas and the determination to work to see whether or not it’s possible to come up with a peace treaty.”
The nascent peace talks haven’t made much headway, with old disputes about land and terrorism clouding the negotiators’ early meetings. U.S. officials say Bush and his aides will be back to check up on the progress from here, and goad both sides.
Bush had closed his round of talks on Thursday with a with a stern summation of his bottom lines for a peace pact he said should be completed this year. Although the goals and terms were not markedly different from past U.S. statements, it was an unusually detailed list of benchmarks.
Bush urged Israel to end its 40-year occupation of the West Bank and said a Palestinian state should be contiguous, a nod to Palestinian opposition to a state broken into pieces by Israeli settlements and military installations.
At the same time, Bush came out on Israel’s side on two important issues, implying that major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank should remain in Israeli hands in a final peace deal and that Palestinian refugees should not be resettled inside of Israel.
Bush wants Arab states to throw support to Abbas in his internal fight with Palestinian militants and give him the regional support necessary to sustain any peace deal he could work out with Israel. Arabs came in force to Bush’ Annapolis summit, and he had flattered them with frequent references to an Arab draft for peace that, like past U.S. efforts, did not stick.
Close Arab allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia had urged Bush to get more directly involved in Mideast peacemaking, saying the Palestinian plight seeded other conflicts and poisoned public opinion throughout the region. Those states and others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude since Annapolis, and Bush’s visit to the region is partly meant to nudge them off the fence.
After two days immersed in the intense and arcane world of Mideast peacemaking, Bush toured holy sites in northern Israel on Friday, listening as robed clerics read him biblical passages about Jesus’ days of ministry there centuries ago.
Bush visited Capernaum, a site where Jesus is said to have performed miracles. The president gazed across the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is claimed to have walked on water. He toured the site of an ancient synagogue and joked and held hands with nuns outside the Church of the Beatitudes, a place where Jesus delivered his famed “Sermon on the Mount.”
Asked how it felt to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, Bush replied “Amazing experience.”
During the visit, Bush was given a crystal statue inscribed with words from the sermon, recounted in Matthew Chapter 5: “Blessed are those who are peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”
Archbishop Elias Shakur, the Greek Catholic clergyman who showed Bush around the site, said he asked him, “Did you come as a politician, as a leader of state, or as a pilgrim?” “I came as a pilgrim,” Bush said, according to Shakur.
Earlier in the day, Bush became misty-eyed as he toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The president, who first visited the memorial in 1998 when he was governor of Texas, was wearing a yarmulke as he rekindled an eternal flame and placed a red-white-and-blue wreath on a stone slab that covers ashes of Holocaust victims taken from six extermination camps.
Bush called the memorial a “sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it.”
“I was most impressed that people in the face of horror and evil would not forsake their god. In the face of unspeakable crimes against humanity, brave souls, young and old, stood strong for what they believe,” he said. The peace effort is the centerpiece of Bush’s eight-day tour, but the balance of the trip is likely to focus as much on the uncertain ambitions of Shiite Iran. Bush’s Sunni allies are nervous about the rise of Iran in their midst, and the threat its adherents may one day pose to their authoritarian regimes, but also are sometimes at odds with the United States over the best strategy to address or confront Tehran.