Bush Presses for Peace in the Middle East President Bush ends his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by describing basic principles of a peace agreement: establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. He wants the two sides to agree within a year.
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Bush Presses for Peace in the Middle East

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Bush Presses for Peace in the Middle East

Bush Presses for Peace in the Middle East

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush ended his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by describing basic principles of a peace agreement.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.

MONTAGNE: The president promised to return this spring and wants the two sides to agree within a year. But something is missing from that discussion; there may be more than two sides. In addition to Israel's leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, there's also the Palestinian group Hamas. It controls the Gaza Strip, home to one and a half million Palestinians. And the Islamist group has called the peace process, quote, "the big lie."

NPR's Eric Westervelt has more.

ERIC WESTERVELT: In his first joint press meeting with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week waxed optimistic about new peace talks. But he mixed that with a stern warning to the Palestinians about the daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire into Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): Gaza must be part of the package. And that as long as there will be terror from Gaza, it will be very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding.

WESTERVELT: But how will Gaza be part of the package? Prime Minister Olmert's negotiating partner, President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, no longer hold power in Gaza. Hamas violently ousted the Palestinian Authority in the coastal territory last June. Their bloody takeover, Hamas officials say, was in response to what the Islamists call Israeli and U.S. backed efforts to overturn Hamas's election win two years ago - an election the U.S. encouraged the Palestinians to hold.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri yesterday in Gaza called peace talks between Olmert and Abbas a fantasy.

Mr. SAMI ABU ZUHRI (Hamas): (Through translator) The West Bank leadership is under deep illusions and they will pay the price from our people for running after these fantasies.

WESTERVELT: President Abbas calls Hamas's Gaza takeover a coup d'etat and the Palestinians' darkest moments since Arabs lost the 1967 war with Israel. Abbas's senior adviser, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, says a peace deal with Israel is the only realistic response to Hamas and the Gaza problem. And he warns that if there's no deal, Hamas could sweep away moderates like him from the West Bank.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Chief Palestinian Negotiator): If we can produce an agreement and tell Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, look, guys, this is it (unintelligible) we're going to have 80 percent and more and Hamas will be gone. If we don't do this, we will disappear from Jericho and Ramallah.

WESTERVELT: Prime Minister Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, agrees, arguing that moderates will eventually prevail over Hamas only if Gazans see the daily economic lives of their West Bank counterparts improving in the wake of a peace agreement.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs): You'll have an East Germany/West Germany type situation, where Palestinians could understand that the path of moderation, the path of pragmatism, the path of negotiation serves Palestinian interests much more than the jihadists ever could.

WESTERVELT: So far, Israel's main response to Hamas and the ongoing Gaza rocket fire has been deadly military strikes from the air and ground. Here are Hamas militants battling Israeli infantry forces last week in the El-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: But the Israeli attacks have done little to stop the rocket fire. And few Israelis think peace talks with Abbas will deliver Gaza.

Professor BARRY RUBIN (Israeli Political Analyst): Who is your partner? What can they deliver? The fact is, you can't make a peace deal about the future with the West Bank alone.

WESTERVELT: Israeli political analyst Barry Rubin says the Israeli strategy is based on wishful thinking that Hamas's deep base of support will easily crumble in the face of an emboldened West Bank Palestinian Authority.

Prof. RUBIN: Let's say that the two sides reached an agreement. There will be a Palestinian state. They'll get all this money. And then you have a government in the Gaza Strip says, we don't accept that, we're continuing the war - which is exactly what's happening.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, the divide between the West Bank and Gaza has only grown wider in the last year, a chasm that will make it harder for President Abbas to sell Gazans on any peace deal he might be able to get.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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