Bush wraps up Israel, West Bank visit promising to return

( dpa )- US President George W Bush wrapped up a three- day visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas Friday with a tour of Christian holy sites and a visit to Israel's national Holocaust memorial, and promised to return for another visit in May.The presidential plane Air Force 1 left Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv at around 1:30 pm (1130 GMT) after a brief farewell ceremony in which Bush announced that he has accepted Israel's invitation to return in May for the country's 60th anniversary celebrations.

The president, a devout, born-again Christian, arrived at Ben Gurion from a tour of Christian holy sites in the Galilee in northern Israel.

Accompanied by Christian religious leaders, Bush visited Capernaum, the ruins of an ancient town which was Jesus home for much of his ministry, as well as the Mount of Beatitudes, where tradition has it Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount.

Before visiting the Galilee Friday morning, Bush, accompanied by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, toured Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, which he called a "moving experience" and a "sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it."

He also laid a wreath on the resting place for ashes collected from the gas chambers of six Nazi death camps in Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance.

Bush earlier summed up his talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert by saying a "peace agreement should happen, and can happen, by the end of this year."

"There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967," he said in a statement at Jerusalem's King David hotel Thursday evening, adding both sides would have to make "painful political concessions."

He said the establishment of a Palestinian state was "long overdue," but also expressed support for Israeli security.

And he backed Israel's wish to keep its main settlement blocs in the West Bank when he said the peace deal should "reflect current realities." Any changes to borders should be "mutually agreed," he stressed however.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials expressed satisfaction with the visit, and Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said the sides would pick up long-delayed, actual peace negotiations next week.

Both leaders instructed their respective negotiators, Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qureia, "to immediately start talks on all the core issues," Regev told journalists in Jerusalem.

Bush's statement "is acceptable by the Israeli side. We view the statement positively," Regev said.

"We believe it is possible to achieve by the end of this year, by the end of 2008, a historic agreement with the Palestinians," he said.

Relating to Olmert's talks with Bush on Iran, he said "we came out with the understanding that both the US and Israel are on the same page."

"Both the US and Israel see the gravity of the threat a nuclear- armed Iran poses to both regional and global security," he said. "We cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran."

Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, had earlier also said "we are pleased with what we heard from Bush. It was encouraging and comforting."

Bush, who landed in Tel Aviv Wednesday for the first visit of a US president to Israel in nearly a decade, made a stop-over in the West Bank Thursday for talks with Abbas in Ramallah and to pray at Christian holy sites in Bethlehem.

Calling also his visit to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, believed to mark the site where Jesus was born, "a moving moment," he said, "for those of us who practise the Christian faith, there's really no more holy site than the place where our Saviour was born."

He also referred to Israel's security barrier, which in the area of Bethlehem is a seven-metre-high concrete wall separating it from southern Jerusalem, saying that "some day I hope that as a result of a formation of a Palestinian state there won't be walls and checkpoints."

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