RAMALLAH, West Bank – President Bush, summing up meetings with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, said Thursday that a peace accord will require "painful political concessions" by each. Resolving the status of Jerusalem will be hard, he said, and he called for the end of the "occupation" of Arab land by the Israeli military.
"Now is the time to make difficult choices," Bush said after a first-ever visit to the Palestinian territories, which followed separate meetings with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem the day before.
Bush is in the Mideast for eight days, trying to bolster his goal of achieving a long-elusive peace agreement by the end of his presidency in a year. Speaking at his hotel in Jerusalem, he said again that he thinks that is possible.
"I am committed to doing all I can to achieve it," Bush said. Within minutes, Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the president would return to the Middle East "at least once and maybe more" over the next year. He wouldn't elaborate on possible destinations, but another White House official said Bush is likely to attend Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations in May.
Bush gave his most detailed summation yet of what a final peace should include, including U.S. expectations for the resolution of some of the hardest issues in the violent conflict, one of the world's longest-running and most intractable. He used tough language intended to put both sides on notice that he sees no reason they cannot get down to serious business, "starting right now."
In his set of U.S. bottom lines were security for Israel, a "contiguous" state for the Palestinians and the expectation that final borders will be negotiated to accommodate territorial changes since Israel's formation. He also suggested international compensation for Palestinians and their descendants who claim a right to return to land they held before Israel's formation.
He made a point of using a loaded term — occupation — to describe Israeli control over land that would eventually form the bulk of an independent Palestinian state. That he did so in Jerusalem underscored that he is trying not to seem partial to Israel.
On borders, Bush said any peace agreement "will require mutually agreed adjustments" to the lines drawn for Israel in the late 1940s. He was referring primarily to Israeli neighborhoods on disputed lands that Israel would keep when an independent Palestinian state is formed.
Earlier in the day, Bush had said Palestinians deserve better than a "Swiss cheese" state fitted around Israeli land and security bulwarks.
"The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear," he said. "There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish a Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush was referring to the West Bank when he spoke of occupation.
Bush offered no specifics to resolve the fate of disputed Jerusalem, but urged both sides to work toward a solution in what he said could be the most difficult issue to settle in a long list of them.
"I know Jerusalem is a tough issue," Bush said. "Both sides have deeply felt political and religious concerns."
"It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other's fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement," the president said. "Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties."
Hadley said that Bush wasn't announcing new U.S. policy with any of his statements, but was trying to reiterate the American position all in one place. "The important thing ... is what he's beginning to hear from the Palestinian and the Israeli side," he said.
Bush spent most of his day in the Palestinian West Bank, seeking to counter Palestinians' skepticism about his commitment to Mideast peace.
He undercut that message somewhat by saying it may not be possible to resolve this year the current, violent split in Palestinian leadership — vital to a deal establishing an independent state. The militant group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June, meaning the Palestinian people — and the land that could eventually form an independent Palestine — are split between governance by Hamas there and by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah-led government in the West Bank. The president is not stopping in Gaza.
Bush had harsh criticism for Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas, he said, was elected to help improve the lot of Palestinians, but "has delivered nothing but misery."
"The question is whether or not hard issues can be resolved and the vision emerges, so that the choice is clear amongst the Palestinians," Bush said at Abbas' side at his government's headquarters in Ramallah. "The choice being, `Do you want this state? Or do you want the status quo? Do you want a future based upon a democratic state? Or do you want the same old stuff?"'
"We want a state, of course," Abbas said in English.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called Bush's comments a "declaration of war."
"Bush's visit and remarks today have indicated that his visit came to support the occupation and has brought nothing to the Palestinian people but evil," the Hamas spokesman said.
Bush's West Bank visit has generated little excitement among Palestinians, who doubt his promises to try to move along Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Bush has kept Mideast peace at arm's length until now, and the U.S. is perceived in the Palestinian areas in any case as a staunch ally of Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians.
Abbas, however, said Bush's visit "gives our people great hope."
The Palestinian leader called on Israel to fulfill its commitments under a 2003 U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan. The plan, known as the roadmap, calls on Israel to halt settlement activity in the West Bank, while requiring the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Neither side has fully carried out its obligations.
Bush has named Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to monitor steps that both sides are making on the peace process, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. That, too, met with approval by Palestinian officials. "It's one of the positive signs of the visit," said Mohammed Mustafa, economic adviser to Abbas.
With his presidency over a year from now, Bush said he knows "I've got 12 months."