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Bush: Mideast Leaders Ready for Tough Choices

Alice Kreit, NPR
President Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at his residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
David Blumenfeld-Pool
Getty Images
President Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at his residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Right-wing Israelis protest against negotiations on the status of Jerusalem on the eve of Bush's visit.
Uriel Sinai
Getty Images
Right-wing Israelis protest against negotiations on the status of Jerusalem on the eve of Bush's visit.

President Bush got a warm welcome Wednesday in Israel, where he has been called a trusted ally and friend. He is starting a weeklong tour through the Middle East to try to nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.

Those negotiations have gotten off to a slow start, but Bush said he thinks the leaders he is dealing with are ready to make tough choices.

The president was feted by Israeli leaders at an elaborate airport ceremony outside Tel Aviv, but his view from the helicopter ride to Jerusalem showed some of the troubles ahead — as Bush tries to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree on the contours of a Palestinian state.


Some Israelis put up a huge sign in a field that could be seen from the air. It read, "Hands off Jerusalem." One of the key issues in the talks is how the Israelis and Palestinians would share the ancient city.

Focusing on the Big Picture

In another sign of trouble, Hamas fired rockets from Gaza, striking southern Israel on Wednesday, which provoked a sharp response from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"There will be no peace unless terror is stopped, and terror will have to be stopped everywhere," Olmert said. "Gaza must be part of the package, and as long as there will be terror from Gaza, it will be very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding."

Bush said he will raise that issue when he meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Thursday, even though Abbas has little, if any, influence in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. In return, the president is likely to hear a lot of other concerns from the Palestinians, particularly about Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Israeli building projects in Jerusalem that Palestinians say are undermining negotiations.


Bush, not one to get down into the nitty-gritty of peacemaking, said he has been urging the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to keep the big picture in mind — and not get sidetracked over settlements or rocket attacks.

"I've come away with the belief that, while those issues are important and certainly create consternation amongst the respective constituencies, that both leaders are determined to make the hard choices necessary," Bush said.

Iran Policy Also on Agenda

Despite the odds, Bush says he is optimistic that the two sides can agree on a vision of a Palestinian state by the time his term ends. He says the U.S. won't dictate, but will nudge the two sides.

"Well, my trip was a pretty significant nudge," he said.

However, there has been little headway since Bush hosted Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Annapolis, Md., in December. And another issue is crowding the agenda on his trip: the threat of a rising Iran. Bush is trying to clear up confusion in the region about his Iran policy following an intelligence report that said Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003.

"A country which once had a secret program can easily restart a secret program. A country which can enrich for civilian purposes can easily transfer that knowledge to a military program," he said.

The president is urging allies to help isolate Iran, which could be a hard sell in some of the Gulf states he is planning to visit later in the week. The administration has been playing up what it says was a provocative act by Iranian naval boats in the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend, and Bush had a warning to Iran on Wednesday.

"There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple," Bush said. "And my advice to them is: Don't do it."

The Pentagon released a video of the incident that Iran called a fake, accusing the United States of trying to stir up tensions in the region.

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