Bush: I believe Israel, Palestinians to sign treaty in 2008

( dpa ) - Addressing widespread scepticism over his ambitious goal, US President George W Bush said Thursday he believed he would be able to "nudge" Israel and the Palestinians toward a joint peace deal still this year.

"I believe there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office," Bus told a joint news conference in Ramallah with President Mahmoud Abbas, on the first visit of an American president to the central West Bank city.

"Conditions on the ground are very difficult," he conceded.

"Is it possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to work out their differences on core issues so that a vision can emerge?" Bush asked.

"My answer is absolutely. Not only is it possible. It is necessary. In order for there to be lasting peace President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert will have to come together and make tough choices and I think they will."

Bush said that when asked what he intended to do to help, he answered "nudge the process forward," apply "pressure" and "be a pain if I need to be a pain."

But while stopping short of demanding a total Israeli freeze in settlement construction in the West Bank, he said he "certainly" expressed his concern about the issue to Israel and also called on it to help, "not hinder," the Palestinians improve their security forces.

His remark appeared a hint at an Israeli arrest raid in Nablus last week, which angered Palestinians.

A new, Western-trained Palestinian special force deployed in the northern West Bank city late last year and the city was to be a test ground for Palestinian efforts to impose law and order and fight militants. But Israel said it could not as yet rely solely on the Palestinian forces and take security risks.

Olmert has imposed a partial moratorium on settlement construction, but vowed to continue building in areas adjacent to Jerusalem he plans to keep as part of future peace deal, including the settlements of Har Homa and Ma'aleh Adimim.

Abbas nevertheless said he was "fully satisfied" with the outcome of the visit by Bush, who met with Olmert and Israeli leaders in Jerusalem after his Air Force 1 touched down in Tel Aviv Wednesday at noon.

"We are in agreement on all topics, all topics are clear," he said.

Welcoming as "very positive" statements by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in which she said the US had always opposed the settlement of Har Homa and made "no distinction" between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, Abbas added that also Bush "understood this issue very well."

Abbas said his and Olmert's negotiating teams were due to meet in a "few days" to begin the long-delayed negotiations on the "core issues" of their mutual conflict, which include the future of Jerusalem, demarcation of borders and the Palestinian refugee problem.

"We have great hopes that during 2008 we will reach the final status and a peace treaty with Israel," he said.

Bush was received in Ramallah by an honour guard and a red-carpet, but a simple and brief welcoming ceremony that excluded an orchestra playing the US and Palestinian national anthems.

Heavy mist over the West Bank city prevented the presidential helicopter, Marine 1, from landing and Bush was forced to make the short journey form his hotel in Jerusalem to Abbas' presidential compound by motorcade.

He opened his visit to the West Bank with a meeting with the extended Palestinian leadership, followed by a private meeting with Abbas.

He was slated to visit the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem - where all schools, shops and businesses were to remain closed throughout the day - in the early afternoon, after more talks with Fayyad in Ramallah.

Ramallah was also blanketed under stifling, unprecedented, security for the visit, the first by a sitting US head of state to the city, the West Bank's political, economic and cultural hub.

Hours before the president's scheduled 10 am (0800 GMT) arrival, thousands of Palestinian policemen and security personnel were out on the streets, clad in blue uniforms or in camouflage, wearing capes for protection against the intermittent rain and armed with semi- automatic rifles.

Roadblocks were set up several dozens of metres apart, and the streets surrounding Abbas' headquarters were hermetically sealed off to traffic and pedestrians.

Snipers were also stationed on roofs around the headquarters, and residents had been warned not to venture out into the nearby streets, open their blinds or stand on the rooftop of their buildings.

Bush is due to leave on Friday for Kuwait, the next stop on his eight-day regional swing.

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