Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Undaunted by the difficulties that lay ahead, President Bush said on Thursday he believes Israelis and Palestinians will sign a peace agreement by the time he leaves office next year.
Heavy fog forced Bush to travel the 12 or so miles from Jerusalem to Ramallah (West Bank) by motorcade instead of by helicopter on Wednesday. He and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas met in the Mukata compound, where Israeli forces confined former P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat for more than a year until shortly before his death in 2004.
"In order for there to be lasting peace, President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert have to come together and make tough choices," Bush said at a joint press conference with Abbas on Thursday.
Bush's podium was placed under a large picture of a smiling Arafat, a man Bush shunned in life.
Despite the apparent dig at the American leader, Bush expressed his belief that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement - that has eluded leaders for 60 years -- could be achieved by the end of his term in office.
"I believe it's going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office," Bush said on the second day of his week-long Middle East tour.
"I am confident that with proper help, the State of Palestine will emerge. And I'm confident that when it emerges, it will be a major step towards peace," Bush said.
Abbas said that under Bush's "direct sponsorship," he hoped that Israel and the Palestinians would have completed bilateral negotiations that address all final status issues - establishing a Palestininan state, with Jerusalem as its capital; and a "fair solution" for the issue of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Abbas said his government would continue to "work towards enhancing security and imposing public order, and establishing good governance that is based on the rule of law, and to consolidate the role of our democratic institutions...so that we can lay the foundations for a modern and democratic state."
Ahead of Bush's visit, P.A. police sealed off streets around the Mukata compound and elsewhere in Ramallah and instructed people in the area to stay inside. American snipers reportedly took up positions on nearby roofs in advance of the president's arrival.
Bush said that U.S. Security Coordinator General Keith Dayton was spending a lot of time trying to help the Abbas and P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad develop effective security forces, a key element in meeting Israeli security demands.
"There's no question in my mind the commitment to provide security for the average [Palestinian] citizen is strong. The question is the capabilities. And the truth of the matter is, there needs to be a fair amount of work done to make sure that the security forces are modernized, well-trained and prepared, with a proper chain of command to respond," Bush said.
Nevertheless, he said, "by any objective measurement, the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank are improving."
But an Israeli government source told Cybercast News Service that Israel doesn't see it that way. "I can't say that we've noticed that improvement," said the source who spoke on background only.
The last three Israeli victims of Palestinian terror attacks were killed either by Palestinian policemen or by members of Abbas' Fatah faction who receive a salary from the P.A.
A recent Israeli military operation in Nablus proved that Fatah militants in the West Bank had not surrendered their weapons and that terrorists are still planning attacks against Israel, the Jerusalem Post wrote earlier this week.
"Everybody wants to make Abu Mazen [Abbas] stronger," said the source. "We would like Abu Mazen to be stronger. We are giving him an opportunity by letting him control Gaza. But he talks the talk but he has to walk the walk. He doesn't seem to really have control over these people. I'm sure that he means well."
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