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Bush Holds Out Hope for Middle East Peace


President Bush says he remains convinced an Israeli-Palestinian agreement can be achieved before he leaves office one year from now. But he acknowledges painful political concessions must be made by both sides, and aides say he is willing to return to the Middle East to help. We have the latest from VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson in Jerusalem.

After two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the president summed up his findings in a brief statement.

"We had very good meetings, and now is the time to make difficult choices," he said.

He said the ultimate goal must be clear.

"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," added Mr. Bush.

He praised the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to launch negotiations on the outlines of a Palestinian state. Mr. Bush said these negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, defensible, and recognized borders. He said they must also ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent.

The president said while negotiations on the parameters of a Palestinian state move forward, the search must continue for solutions to such thorny issues as Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

"I know Jerusalem is a tough issue," he said. "Both sides have deeply felt political and religious concerns. I fully understand that finding a solution to this issue will be one of the most difficult challenges on the road to peace, but that is the road we have chosen to walk."

President Bush left no doubt he is well aware of the enormity of the task ahead. White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says the president is likely to return to the region at least once before he leaves office and is naming an envoy - General William Frazer - to monitor progress in the peace process.

The hastily arranged statement by President Bush at his Jerusalem hotel came shortly before a last, private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mr. Bush is expected to discuss his talks earlier in the day with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah - the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

At a joint news conference, President Abbas stressed 2008 should be a year of peace.

"Peace in the world starts from here - from the Holy Land," he said.

From Ramallah, President Bush traveled by helicopter to Bethlehem. He landed on a hilltop, not far from the place where Christians believe Jesus was born.

As he walked through the Church of the Nativity, there were reminders in the adjacent courtyard that this is indeed the Holy Land - the birthplace of three faiths.

And as the bells tolled, the air was also filled with the chant of the Muslim call to prayer.

On Friday, the president will visit holy sites in the Galilee and spend time at Yad Vashem - the memorial to the victims of the Nazi holocaust of World War II.

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