Bush ends Israel, West Bank visit with peace deal prediction

. ( dpa ) - US President George W Bush concluded a three- day visit to Israel and the West Bank Friday, during which he expressed optimism the sides could wrap up a peace treaty by the time he leaves office, despite the "tough choices" which lie ahead. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials expressed satisfaction with the visit. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev defined as "acceptable" a statement by Bush Thursday night summing up his talks with leaders from both sides. "We view the statement positively," he said.

President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, had earlier said Palestinians were "pleased" with what they heard during Bush's meeting with the Palestinian leader in Ramallah on Thursday. "It was encouraging and comforting," he said.

Regev said the sides would pick up long-delayed peace talks next week. Both Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told respective Palestinian and Israeli negotiators Ahmed Qureia and Tzipi Livni "to immediately start talks on all the core issues," he told journalists in Jerusalem.

The sides renewed the peace process in November, at the Annapolis, Maryland conference which was hosted by Bush. "We believe it is possible to achieve by the end of this year, by the end of 2008, an historic agreement with the Palestinians," Regev said. Bush, summing up his two days of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, said in his Thursday night statement that a "peace agreement should happen, and can happen, by the end of this year", although both sides would have to make "painful political concessions." "There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967," he said, adding that the establishment of a Palestinian state was "long overdue," and also expressing support for Israeli security.

He also 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 however stressed. He additionally called on Israel to end its settlement expansion and remove unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, and on the Palestinians to crack down on militants.

The White House had earlier announced the appointment of General William Frazier as head of the monitoring mechanism to ensure implementation of the road map peace plan, which will be enacted concurrent with the negotiations. In his talks with Olmert and Israeli leaders, Bush also discussed Iran, whose nuclear programme Israel sees as its main existential threat. Regev said Israel emerged from these talks "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."

Bush, making his first trip in office to Israel and the Palestinian areas, and the first by a sitting US president in nearly a decade, arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on Wednesday afternoon, and held talks with Olmert in the evening. On Thursday he met Abbas and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, before visiting Bethlehem, and praying at the Church of the Nativity, where Christian tradition holds Jesus Christ was born. The president, a devout born-again Christian, described it as a "moving moment," and said that "for those of us who practise the Christian faith, there's really no more holy site than the place where our Saviour was born."

The president also met with Tony Blair, now the envoy of the so-called Middle East Quartet of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, and was briefed on the efforts to help Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad build viable institutions for Palestinian statehood.

Bush began his day Friday with a visit to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which he toured with Olmert, President Shimon Peres and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Yad Vashem's director, Avner Shalev, said the president had tears in his eyes during the tour, and told Rice the US should have bombed the Auschwitz death camp during World War II.

Wearing a yarmulke, Bush also laid a red-white-and-blue wreath on the resting place for ashes collected from the gas chambers of six Nazi death camps in Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance.

He called his visit to the memorial a "moving experience" and a "sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it."

From Yad Vashem Bush then went by helicopter to the biblical town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived for much of his ministry and the home of his disciples Peter, Andrew and Matthew.

He was shown around the site by two brown-robed Franciscan friars, who read him passages from the gospels and took him to a 5th-century synagogue built on the ruins of a 1st-century synagogue where Christians believe Jesus preached. He then visited the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Archbishop Elias Shakour showed him around the site and he spoke with several nuns before entering a Church. He was then whisked by helicopter to Ben Gurion Airport where, in a brief farewell ceremony, he promised to return to Israel for the country's 60th anniversary celebrations in May.

The presidential plane, Air Force 1, left Israel at about 1130 GMT for Kuwait, the next stop on the president's eight-day regional tour.

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