RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leaders asked Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday to pressure Israel to halt settlement construction and voiced other complaints that deflated Cheney's hopeful words about Mideast peace.
Palestinians had little expectation their meetings with Cheney, a strong defender of the Jewish state, would produce anything concrete. While that was the case, the Bush administration did get another chance to nudge the two sides toward an agreement before President Bush leaves office in January. The Palestinians, too, had another shot at expressing their frustrations.
The vice president said neither side should pass up this latest opportunity for an accord despite rancor over Israeli settlements and the retaliatory attacks from each that have disrupted negotiations intended to lead to Palestinian statehood.
"This can be done, and if all concerned stay at the work, success will be achieved," Cheney said, striking a hopeful tone on Easter Sunday during his first vice presidential visit to the Palestinian territory.
After talks with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, Cheney flew to the West Bank by helicopter, touching down at Mahmoud Abbas' presidential compound near the grave of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004.
Abbas met Cheney at the end of a long red carpet and they walked between two rows of presidential guards. Palestinian officials said there were no breakthroughs in Cheney's talks with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and that Cheney essentially paid a courtesy call, repeating U.S. positions.
Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide, said Abbas cited the need for calm in the West Bank and Gaza, and said Israel must halt settlement expansion.
"I can't say that Mr. Cheney brought anything new in his visit, but he reiterated President Bush's vision and commitment to having an independent Palestinian state," Erekat said.
Cheney's visit was part of the administration's strategy to keep the pressure on negotiators. Bush visited the region in January and returns in May, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came this month and is back in April.
Israel has pursed peace with Abbas, a moderate Palestinian in control of the West Bank. Hamas militants wrested control of the Gaza Strip in June from Abbas-allied forces. Hamas has pounded southern Israel with rockets; Israel has retaliated with attacks in Gaza.
"Peace and stability will not be achieved through a settlement expansion or the setting up of checkpoints around towns and villages, and the military escalation against Gaza, nor the incursions, continuous incursions into West Bank villages and towns, as well as the arrest which led to more than 11,000 prisoners in the Israeli jails," Abbas said, detailing Palestinian complaints.
"We also reiterate our condemnation and rejection for the firing of missiles being launched from Gaza against Israel," he said after meeting Cheney.
Cheney said a peace deal will mean "painful concessions" by both sides, and require the will to defeat those who are committed to violence and refuse to accept the other side's right to exist.
"Terror and rockets do not merely kill innocent civilians," Cheney said. "They also kill legitimate hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people."
In an apparent response to Cheney, a Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, said: "This is part of the American policy and this is part of the war crimes committed by this administration. ... Sooner or later the criminals will be punished."
On Cheney's 10-day trip to the Mideast, talks with leaders have focused on oil, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
Before his diplomatic mission, Cheney began Easter Sunday with a peaceful prayer and the singing of "Amazing Grace" at a tiny chapel in Jerusalem with an arched ceiling of stones.
Heading into a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Cheney said the U.S. was dedicated to doing all it could to advance the peace process. He said the administration also was "actively involved in dealing with the threats that we see emerging in the region — not only threats to Israel, but threats to the United States as well."
It was clear that Cheney was referring to Iran. Peres was more specific, saying declarations that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made against Israel cannot be ignored.
Late Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Cheney that Iran's military buildup "is endangering the stability of the region and the entire world" and that no option should be taken off the table concerning Tehran's nuclear program, according to a statement from Barak's office.