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Bush predicts Mideast peace treaty before he leaves White House

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ANNE GEARAN
January 10, 2008
— President Bush on Thursday predicted that a Mideast peace treaty would be completed by the time he leaves office, but undercut that optimism with harsh criticism of Hamas militants who control part of the land that would form an eventual independent Palestine.

Bush said he’s convinced that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders understand “the importance of democratic states living side by side” in peace, and noted that he has a one-year deadline for progress on his watch.


“I’m on a timetable,” he told reporters. “I’ve got 12 months.”


He said he is not sure that the problem of Hamas, a militant Islamic group that took over the Gaza Strip in June, can be solved within that time frame. Hamas, he said, was elected to help improve the lot of Palestinians, but “has delivered nothing but misery.”


Standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush said he is confident that “with proper help, the state of Palestine will emerge.”


“I am confident that the status quo is unacceptable, Mr. President, and we want to help you,” Bush said.


Abbas called on Israel to fulfill its commitments under a U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan known as the “roadmap,” and said he hopes “this will be the year for the creation of peace.”


Bush is on a three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank to show support for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks following seven years of violence.


“The question is whether or not hard issues can be resolved and the vision emerges, so that the choice is clear amongst the Palestinians,” Bush said. “The choice being, ‘Do you want this state? Or do you want the status quo? Do you want a future based upon a democratic state? Or do you want the same old stuff? “’


Even though it’s Bush’s first trip to the Palestinian West Bank, it generated little excitement among Palestinians, who are largely skeptical of his promises to try to move along Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The U.S. is perceived in the Palestinian areas as a staunch ally of Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians, but Abbas said Bush’s visit “that gives our people great hope,” Abbas said.


Bush said he expects both Israelis and Palestinians to “honor their obligations under the roadmap” peace plan, and that Israelis should help the Palestinians modernize their security forces.


“In order for there to be lasting peace, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have to come together and make tough choices,” Bush said. “And I’m convinced they will. And I believe it’s possible – not only possible, I believe it’s going to happen – that there be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office (in January 2009). That’s what I believe.”


The president described the current round of negotiations as an opportunity to move toward a day when there will be two democracies – Israel and a Palestinian state – living alongside one another in peace. “It is in the interest not only of the Palestinian and Israelis but of the world,” Bush said.


Bush’s travels through the Mideast does not include a stop in Gaza, an area controlled by Hamas, which swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Hamas later led a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, essentially splitting Palestinian governance. Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, now runs Gaza, while Abbas and his secular Fatah Party, backed by the United States, now run the West Bank.


Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, quickly dismissed Bush and Abbas’ hopeful comments.


“This meeting was for public relations only, it was an empty meeting without results, only more dreams and waste of time,” the Hamas spokesman said. “The meeting focused on the so-called security topics which mean to act against the interests of the Palestinian majority and the resistance.”


While Bush claims that Hamas has failed to help improve the lives of Palestinians living in Gaza, the president acknowledged that he doesn’t know whether Abbas’ government can resolve the Palestinian division before the end of the year.


“Gaza’s a tough situation,” Bush said. “I don’t know whether you can solve it in a year or not.”


But it won’t be solved, Bush said, unless Abbas lays out a choice to the people in Gaza: He defined that as: “Do you want those who have created chaos to run your country? Or do you want those of us who negotiated a settlement with the Israelis that will lead to lasting peace.”


“There is a competing vision taking place in Gaza,” Bush said. “And in my judgment, Hamas – which I thought ran on the campaign, ‘We’re going to improve your lives through better education and better health’ – has delivered nothing but misery.”


The president also said that he understands Palestinian frustrations over checkpoints throughout the West Bank but says they’re necessary for now to give Israelis a sense of security.


“Checkpoints create frustrations for people. They create a sense of security for Israelis. They create massive frustration for the Palestinians,” Bush said.


“The whole object is to create a state that is capable of defending itself internally and giving confidence to its neighbor that checkpoints won’t be needed.”


On Wednesday, Olmert said “there will be no peace” unless attacks are halted from all parts of the Palestinian territories. Olmert, however, said that both sides “are very seriously trying to move forward” on a peace agreement.


“Israel does not tolerate and will not tolerate the continuation of these vicious attacks,” Olmert said after 2 1/2 hours of talks with Bush. “We will not hesitate to take all the necessary measures. There will be no peace unless terror is stopped. And terror will have to be stopped everywhere.”



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