JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said on Sunday that Washington was doing its utmost to push forward Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations while dealing with emerging threats in the Middle East.
Cheney, who began a visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank on Saturday, kicked off a day of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders by attending an Easter service in a small stone chapel at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.
He then met Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told him “time is of the essence” in U.S.-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians that Washington hopes can lead to a peace deal by the time George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Bush made his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank two months ago. He is expected to make another trip soon.
“We’re obviously dedicated to doing all we can as an administration to try to move the peace process forward and also obviously actively involved in dealing with the threats that we see emerging in the region, not only threats to Israel but threats to the United States as well,” Cheney said.
He did not elaborate on the nature of the dangers.
Palestinians accuse Israel of undermining the talks through settlement building on occupied land in and near Jerusalem and by refusing to remove West Bank roadblocks and mounting offensives against militants firing rockets from the Gaza Strip.
Cheney was to visit the occupied West Bank later in the day and meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well as Prime Minister Salam Fayyad before leaving for Turkey, his last stop on a nine-day visit to the Middle East.
Cheney met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday, who said their talks would include concerns about Iran and Syria, as well as the peace process with the Palestinians.
Israel believes Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at building atomic weapons and could pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state.
Oil-rich Iran, one of Israel’s most bitter enemies, denies it is seeking atomic arms and says it is pursuing its nuclear program and uranium enrichment for power generation.
At a joint news conference with Olmert on Saturday, Cheney said Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security was “enduring and unshakable.”
He said Israel had a right to protect itself always against “terrorism, rocket attacks and other attacks from forces dedicated to Israel’s destruction.”
Israel tightened its economic and military cordon around the Gaza Strip after Hamas Islamists routed Abbas’s more secular Fatah forces and seized control of the coastal territory in June.
The United States, Cheney said, would never pressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called Cheney’s comments “provocative and completely biased in favor of the Israeli occupation.”