WASHINGTON An optimistic U.S. President George W. Bush predicted that a major peace accord over a future Palestinian state "is going to happen" within the next year. He said, though, that both sides would have to make some painful decisions.
Bush spent the morning of Jan. 10 in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, assuring his host that he sought an end to the "occupation" and a viable, Palestinian state that would not be cut up like "Swiss cheese," but also "not born of terror."
He said that current negotiations between the two sides "must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders, and they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent."
Bush added that any peace agreement "will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities," providing a flexibility that would allow Israel to retain certain large settlement blocs near the Green Line in exchange for providing the Palestinians with a safe passage route between Gaza and the West Bank.
On the festering Palestinian refugee problem, Bush said it should be solved through compensation and by the establishment "of a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."
Bush offered no ideas for resolving the heated dispute over Jerusalem, acknowledging it is "a tough issue. Both sides have deeply felt political and religious concerns."
Ultimately, Bush said he wanted to help Abbas offer the Palestinian people a clear choice between a future democratic state and the "misery" of Hamas and other extremists.
"In order for there to be lasting peace, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have to come together and make tough choices," Bush said following two days of meetings. "And I'm convinced they will. And I believe it's possiblenot only possible, I believe it's going to happen that there be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office (January 2009)."
Nonetheless, Bush admitted that Hamas rule in Gaza presents "a tough situation. I don't know whether you can solve it in a year or not."
In their private meeting, Abbas stressed two current Palestinian demands: the lifting of IDF checkpoints in the West Bank and a freeze on settlements.
Heavy fog forced Bush to motorcade to Ramallah, rather than by helicopter ride. Passing near the security fence and through an Israeli checkpoint on the way north from Jerusalem, he later remarked, "They create a sense of security for Israel, they create massive frustration for the Palestinians."
Bush then made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, before returning to Jerusalem for dinner with Olmert and other senior Israeli leaders. He visited Yad Vashem and the Galilee on Jan. 11. He also visited a number of Arab countries before returning to Washington on Jan. 16.
International Christian Embassy Jerusalem contributed to this article.