New opportunity for peace, Bush says on arrival in Israel

( dpa ) - US President George W Bush arrived in Israel Wednesday at the start of a three-day visit and said that he saw a "new opportunity" for peace in the in the Middle East.

"The US and Israel are strong allies. The sources of that strength is a shared belief in the power of human freedom. Our people built two great democracies under difficult circumstances," he told dignitaries at the welcoming ceremony Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.

"The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel's security as a a Jewish state," he said.

The president also spoke out against extremism, saying that "We most firmly oppose those who murder the innocent to achieve their political objectives."

Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed Bush by saying that the coming 12 months would be a "moment of truth" which had to yield not just words.

Peace, he added, could move forward on three tracks - political, economic and security.

Hinting at what is likely to be a prime topic of conversation between Bush and Israeli leaders, Peres said that Israel took the president's advice "not underestimate the Iranian threat" and warned that " Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self defence."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, dressed like the two presidents in a dark blue suit and with a blue tie, confined himself to more general remarks, telling the president that his policies "have reflected a basic understanding of the challenges facing Israel and this troubled region, and a solid commitment to our national security."

"The bond between the state of Israel and the United States of America is unshakable. It is based on the most fundamental common ideas of freedom and democracy," he said.

"You are our solid and most trusted ally in the battle against terrorism and fundamentalism and a strong supporter of our quest for peace and stability," he said.

Olmert and Bush are slated to hold talks later Wednesday after the president attends a reception at Peres' official residence in Jerusalem.

Prior to departing Washington, Bush said his trip was aimed at pursuing a "vision" for the creation of a Palestinian state as the basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A clear vision, he told reporters, was essential for countering terrorist groups like Hamas, who are bent on the violent destruction of Israel.

The president rekindled the peace process by hosting the Annapolis, Maryland conference on November 27, when Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to resume negotiations for the first time in seven years with the goal of reaching a deal by the end of this year.

Bush is due to hold talks with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah on Thursday.

The visit is Bush's first as president to Israel and the Palestinian territories. The presidential airplane, Air Force 1, touched down at Ben Gurion shortly before noon local time (1000 GMT.)

Bush paused at the plane's open door, smiling broadly and his right arm raised in a wave, before descending the gangway to shake hands with Peres and Olmert.

"It's good to be with you," he said, while Peres apologized for the windy weather.

Accompanied by Peres, he inspected an honour guard drawn from the Israeli army, navy and air force, and then, walking on a red carpet, moved down a long receiving line, shaking hands with Israeli politicians, religious leaders and state officials, sometimes pausing briefly to exchange a few words.

From the airport, the president was flown to Jerusalem by helicopter, while the rest of his large entourage, as well as Peres and Olmert, made the journey by car with the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, which passes by the airport, closed to other traffic.

Marine 1, the presidential helicopter, touched down at the old Hebrew University campus at Givat Ram, down the road from Olmert's office, shortly afterwards, and Bush was driven to the King David Hotel, where he will be staying, though streets cleared of traffic and decked with US, Israeli and Jerusalem municipality flags.

Bush is slated to leave Israel on Friday afternoon for Kuwait, the next stop on his regional swing.

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