Bush Middle East visit meant to ‘nudge’ peace talks
JERUSALEM – President Bush said Wednesday 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 it would be “very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding” until rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip were brought to a halt.
Gaza is in the hands of the militant Hamas organization that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist group.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president whom Bush is to meet with in the West Bank today, has no control over Gaza or Hamas.
Bush, acknowledging the difficulty of a mission he wants to see accomplished before he leaves office, said the United States stood 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.
Bush said he had come to push both sides toward that goal, however, saying Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank “ought to go” and that no part of Palestinian lands can be a “safe 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 chilly courtyard of the prime minister’s residence after meeting for more than two hours.