RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush told Palestinians on Thursday he believed they would sign a peace treaty with Israel within a year that would give them their own state.
Challenging sceptics on the first U.S. presidential visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, Bush told a news conference with President Mahmoud Abbas: “I believe it’s going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office.”
In some of the boldest language he has used since hosting a summit at Annapolis, Maryland, in November that relaunched peace negotiations after a 7-year hiatus, Bush added: “I am confident that with proper help the state of Palestine will emerge.”
Officials have said that any treaty signed by the time Bush steps down next January would not lead to the immediate creation of a new state. A number of formalities would remain and Israel has made it clear it will not end its occupation of the West Bank until it is sure its own territory is safe from attack.
Bush also said that he was unsure that the isolation of the Gaza Strip, a major part of any future state, could be solved within the year. Abbas lost control of the enclave in June to Hamas Islamists who are fighting Israeli forces. Hamas hostility to the peace talks is a major obstacle to any peace deal.
Bush said Washington, Israel’s closest ally and now a strong backer of Abbas’s administration, stood ready to provide both political and economic backing but that Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must “come together to make hard choices”.
Speaking at the Muqata compound where the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was besieged by Israeli forces just a few years ago, his successor Abbas hailed Bush as the first U.S. president to commit fully to back a Palestinian state.
Critics say Bush has failed to deploy Washington’s full weight in seeking to end the 60-year-old conflict during the first seven years of his presidency. Many doubt differences can be overcome now, as Bush seeks to burnish his legacy in the Middle East after five years of war in Iraq.
Abbas urged Bush to press Israel to ease security restrictions in the occupied West Bank that Palestinians say cripple their society and economy, and halt Jewish settlement.
Bad helicopter weather forced Bush to drive past settlements and the mammoth barrier Israel is building through the area.
The president said: “I can see the frustrations. But I also understand that people in Israel … want to know whether there’s going to be protection from the violent few who murder.”
But Bush, who many Arabs see as too close to Israel to act as honest broker, also said that Israel must ensure the future Palestinian state had contiguous territory and was not carved up by Jewish settlements and security blockades — “Swiss cheese isn’t going to work”, he said of the drawing of a border.
Bush also urged Israel, which frequently mounts raids against militants in the West Bank, not to take action that undermines Abbas’s security forces, which Washington hopes will be a pillar of a future, democratic state.
Politically weak, Abbas is hoping Bush’s visit to Ramallah will boost his own standing among Palestinians, who are desperate for progress towards an end to Israeli occupation and fulfilment of their dream of an independent state.
Abbas and Bush embraced and kissed in traditional Middle Eastern style when the U.S. leader arrived at the Muqata. They walked hand-in-hand off the stage after their news conference.
Bush held talks with Olmert in Jerusalem on Wednesday. He said he was “very hopeful” about prospects for peace and urging Israel to shut down Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank.
Like Abbas, Olmert is politically weak at home, raising questions over how he can deliver Israeli agreement to a deal.
With attention in the United States and around the world turning to his possible successor, Bush’s clout is also diminishing.
A poll in Israel’s Yediot Ahronoth newspaper found that 77 percent of the Israeli public do not believe Bush’s visit will bring progress in the peace process, against 21 percent who do.
Bush was to visit the Church of the Nativity, traditional birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem later.