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President Bush Says Time is Right for Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians

President Bush says he believes there will be a signed peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians by the time he leaves office a year from now. He made these bold remarks in Jerusalem, his first stop on an 8-day trip to the Middle East. He has called for Israel to end its “occupation” of Palestinian territories and for the Palestinians to stop terror attacks against Israel. He says a two-state agreement would ultimately eliminate security checkpoints, guarantee Israel “secure” and “defensible borders”, and provide for a Palestinian state that is “viable” and “contiguous.”

In an earlier interview with Al-Hurra television, the U.S. government’s Arabic-language satellite television network, the President told viewers it was his intention to advance the agenda set forth at the Middle East peace conference held 6 weeks ago in Annapolis. But Omar Karmi of the Jordan Times, who reports from Ramallah, says expectations among Palestinians are “not particularly high.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Karmi says people are extremely skeptical that this round of talks will bring real benefits to Palestinians or that Washington is “serious enough” in its intention to push the two sides into “something meaningful.”

Israeli journalist Ori Nir of Peace Now says that most Israelis, like most Palestinians, have low expectations regarding what President Bush will be able to accomplish on his trip. Nonetheless, he says that Israelis support Mr. Bush’s “vision, his mission.” But Omar Karmi notes that, although the “chemistry” between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly very good, the two leaders have not been able to capitalize on it, partly because each of their positions is weak with respect to their own constituencies.

In recent days, some Middle East analysts have suggested that President Bush’s meetings with leaders in the Gulf States, which are expected to focus on Iran’s regional influence, may actually be more important to the U.S. administration that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Similarly, the Gulf states are probably more concerned about the growing influence of Iran than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. President Bush is insistent that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the region and he is therefore seeking support for “different types of sanctions and international efforts.”

Despite the political weaknesses of the American, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders, Ori Nir says the three share the “notion that real progress is in their national security interest” as well as in the interest of the legacy that each hopes to leave. For that reason, Mr. Nir says, he agrees with long-term U.S.-Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross that, although a breakthrough is unlikely, it may be possible to take “some baby steps” on the road to regional peace. In addition to Israel and the West Bank, President Bush will be making stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.