Bush Hopes to Jumpstart Mideast Peace Talks

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President Bush travels to Israel in a bid to refocus stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The trip follows renewed peace talks in Annapolis, Md., in November. It is his first visit as president to Israel.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Bush traveled to Israel in an effort to help refocus stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We seek lasting peace. We see a new opportunity for peace here in the Holy Land and for freedom across the region.

INSKEEP: That's the president speaking as he arrived in Tel Aviv this morning on his first visit as president to Israel and the Palestinian territories. That new opportunity that he mentioned follows re-launched peace talks in Annapolis, Maryland, last November.

NPR's Eric Westervelt brings us up-to-date.

ERIC WESTERVELT: What six weeks ago politicians hailed as the positive spirit of Annapolis quickly, deteriorated back here into finger pointing and deadlock. Palestinians said Israel's plans to build new Jewish homes in south Jerusalem and expand settlements in the occupied West Bank were undermining talks before they got started.

Israel said the Palestinian authority continually failed to secure the West Bank - its sole area of control after losing the Gaza Strip to Hamas last year. Daily rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza into southern Israel, including a barrage this morning, continues to frustrate and anger Israelis.

It's into this atmosphere that President Bush arrives today to try to rebuild what little momentum there was coming out of Annapolis. Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met for two hours in Jerusalem. Olmert spokesman Mark Regev says the two agreed to quickly start direct an ongoing negotiations on all the big core issues. Those include settlements, border, security, Jerusalem and refugees.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says President Bush's visit today sends a strong message that these talks will be substantive.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Chief Palestinian Negotiator): It's only us that can deliver. But the president is telling us, if you deliver I'm not going to let you down. I'm not going to let you down. The world will not let you down. We'll be there for you economically, politically, security - everything you need to (unintelligible) this agreement will be there. That's a good offer.

WESTERVELT: Prime Minister Olmert's spokesman Regev says the two sides could begin high-level talks as early as next week. Regev says, quote, "For talks about the big core issues, political issues, you need politicians doing that." The Israeli team will be led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Palestinian team led by former Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank meantime say they'll use Mr. Bush's visit to protest against Prime Minister Olmert, who's been politically weakened by the 2006 war with Lebanese Hezbollah.

Fifty-year-old Bowas Haeitzni(ph) lives in Kiryat Arba, a large settlement near Hebron. Haeitzni says Jews have a God-given biblical right to all West Bank land, and Olmert has no right to negotiate with Palestinians over that land.

Mr. RUVEN HASSAN(ph) (Political Scientist, Israel): Here they want to give our land to the biggest monsters of terror - to our worst enemies. It's impossible.

WESTERVELT: Ruven Hassan, an Israeli political scientist, says Mr. Bush may have waited far too late into his presidency before visiting the area and becoming directly engaged in the peace process.

Mr. HASSAN: The issues between us are very, very deep. It's settlements. It's Jerusalem. It's the right of return. It's terrorism. It's Gaza. In order words, this is a situation that gets more and more difficult to solve with each passing year.

WESTERVELT: Other analysts question whether Mr. Bush is ready and willing to exert the needed political pressure on Israel over West Bank settlements and illegal outposts, and with the Palestinians on security and cracking down on militants. Both are first-staged pledges in the U.S.-backed roadmap peace plan - a plan that's so far has never been on track.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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