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Bush begins Mideast peace push

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- President Bush said yesterday that he was trying to nudge Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate the outlines of an independent Palestinian state, acknowledging that it has taken the pressure of his first presidential visit to Israel just to get them to the starting line.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, outlining the conundrum the effort poses, told Bush that it will be "very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding" until rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip are brought to a halt.

Gaza is in the hands of the militant group Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president with whom Bush is to meet today in the West Bank, has no control over Gaza or Hamas. Bush, acknowledging the difficulty of a mission he wants to see accomplished before he leaves office in barely a year, said the United States stands ready to help but would not take a detailed, hands-on role.

"I'm under no illusions," he said. "It's going to be hard work. I fully understand that there's going to be some painful political compromises. ... I fully understand that there's going to be some tough negotiations."

"America cannot dictate the terms of what a state will look like," he said.

But Bush said he came here to push both sides toward that goal, and he issued two demands: that Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank "ought to go" and that no part of Palestinian lands can be a "haven for terrorists."

Bush noted that his visit had prompted Abbas and Olmert to agree Tuesday, on the eve of his arrival, to end weeks of delay in tackling the major issues of the decades-old conflict.

"Am I nudging them forward? Well, my trip was a pretty significant nudge," Bush said.

Bush and Olmert spoke at a joint news conference in the courtyard of the prime minister's residence after meeting for more than two hours. Bush issued his strongest warning yet to Iran in the wake of the weekend confrontation between three small Iranian vessels and U.S. Navy ships traversing what the administration said were the international waters of the Strait of Hormuz.

"There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple," Bush told reporters. "And my advice to them is, don't do it."

Taken together, the challenge of bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together six weeks after they committed themselves to new talks during a Nov. 27 conference in Annapolis and what Bush described as Iran's "provocative" behavior illustrate the difficulty of reducing tensions across the Middle East and Persian Gulf region.

Bush sounded upbeat as Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed him at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv after an overnight flight from Washington.

"We see a new opportunity for peace here in the Holy Land, and for freedom across the region," Bush said.

But Olmert quickly reminded him of the challenge posed by Hamas, an Iran-backed movement that controls Gaza and calls for Israel's destruction. He said there could be no deal with Abbas' West Bank leadership unless it can curb attacks from Gaza. "Gaza must be a part of the package," he said.

Palestinian militants fired eight rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel from the coastal enclave during the day, damaging two houses in the border town of Sederot. One resident was treated for shock.

The Israeli military hit back with missiles and ground fire aimed at rocket-launching teams. Palestinian hospital officials said one Hamas-affiliated militant and two civilian bystanders were killed.

Bush said he would ask Abbas what he planned to do about stopping the rockets from Gaza, a part of his prospective state.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War and the Palestinians want for their state, pose a similar obstacle to peace talks. Although Olmert has promised to authorize no new settlements and to tear down illegal settler outposts, new outposts continue to crop up - the most recent on the eve of Bush's arrival.

Bush took note of Israel's failure to meet its commitment under a 2003 U.S. peace initiative that calls for freezing settlement activity and dismantling the more than 50 outposts built since March 2001. .

"We've been talking about it for four years. The agreement was to get rid of outposts, illegal outposts, and they ought to go," he declared.

James Gerstenzang and Richard Boudreaux write for the Los Angeles Times.

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