Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on Saturday dismissed President George W. Bush's upcoming visit to the Middle East as a "photo opportunity" and said he was not welcome in the region.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, however, said that Bush's first presidential trip to Israel and the West Bank next week could spur efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before the U.S. leader leaves office in January 2009.
Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June and opposes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's bid to make peace with Israel, said Bush's visit was aimed at shoring up support for the Jewish state and its occupation of Palestinian land.
"Bush's visit is unwelcome because it aims to serve the occupation and provide it with political and psychological support," Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
"The visit is nothing but a farewell visit to get some photo opportunities as Bush prepares to leave the White House."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas agreed at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November to try to forge a deal on Palestinian statehood before Bush steps down.
"I think this trio has a chance, and if it moves now to the realm of action, it's very possible Bush's visit will herald the passage from talk to action," Peres told Israel's Channel Two television in an interview in Jerusalem.
Peres defined action as negotiations on core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, security moves by Abbas to rein in militants in the occupied West Bank and a swift influx of economic aid that would strengthen the Fatah leader.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told a Palestinian radio station that Palestinians would press Bush on Israel's settlement activity, an issue the U.S. president this week called "an impediment" to peace efforts.
Talks launched at Annapolis have faltered since Israel announced plans to build hundreds of new homes on occupied land -- a move the Palestinians say contravenes its obligations under a 2003 U.S. peace "road map".
Israel argues the Palestinians have failed to meet their own road map commitments on curbing militants.
Skeptics say Bush's hands-off approach to Middle East peacemaking during his almost seven years in office and Hamas control of Gaza undermine chances for a breakthrough.
Asked whether the goal of reaching a peace deal within a year was realistic, Peres said he did not know if all issues could be settled so quickly, but added: "It is possible to reach an agreement to change the situation."