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On Mideast trip, Bush hopes to propel historic Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking

In Jerusalem Wednesday, the president called for two democracies, Israel and Palestine, to live side by side.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2008

Mideast talks: President Bush (c.), landed in Israel Wednesday for talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Jerusalem

The patriotic tunes that greeted President Bush as he arrived in Israel Wednesday for the first time in his presidency set the tone for a historic visit.

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But given the laudatory remarks of Mr. Bush and his Israeli counterparts on the airport tarmac, the visit seemed focused on celebrating and strengthening the US-Israel relationship, throwing into question whether Bush would be equally welcomed Thursday in the West Bank.

In their speeches under a brisk and briefly sunny sky, neither Bush nor Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres mentioned Palestinians by name, only by inference. Mr. Peres, once at the center of peacemaking in the 1990s, quoted the words Bush himself intoned in a speech in 2002, saying "My vision is of two states living side by side in peace and security."

Said Peres: "Then it seemed remote. Now it is the basis for negotiations."

Bush spoke about the importance of Israel and the US as allies who built "two great democracies under difficult circumstances." "I knew I'd come back, because Israel is a special place," Bush said, emphasizing that he had been here once prior to being elected president. "The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state."

Those rang as reassuring words in Israelis' ears, in part because he used the same language that Mr. Olmert has been reiterating in recent speeches leading up to and following the Annapolis, Md., peace summit in November.

Israel is ready to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state, Olmert says, only if Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world make their peace with Israel as a Jewish state.

This new mantra is read by many here as a statement of Israel's position vis-à-vis its own Arab-Palestinian citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the Israeli populace, and the possibility that Israel may consider "swapping" some of that population into the territory of the future Palestinian state in order to maintain a Jewish majority.

Later in the day, however, Bush held an afternoon meeting with Olmert, and in comments afterward said that he saw a seriousness on the part of Israel to advance the peace process.

"I believe that two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, is in the best interests of America, Israel, and the world," Bush said. "It's in the interests of all of us that that vision come to be."

Responding to one reporter's question, he came to Olmert's defense in a somewhat folksy and exasperated manner: "You just heard the man's desire to talk about core issues!" In response to another question, Bush said that illegal settlement outposts "oughta go."

Bush also used the opportunity to talk tough on Iran in the wake of this weekend's standoff between US and Iranian military ships in the Strait of Hormuz.

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