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After Bush nudges, neither side budges

Times Staff Writers

President Bush completed two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday without a firm public commitment from Israel to halt expansion of West Bank settlements or give the Palestinians a bigger role in policing the territory.

Nor did the president make progress on a key Israeli concern that has stood in the way of peace talks for years: a halt in rocket attacks on southern Israel by Palestinian militants based in the Gaza Strip.

Bush nevertheless insisted that a peace accord was possible by the end of his term, and spelled out guidelines for a deal to end what he called Israel’s “occupation” of Arab lands and to create an independent Palestinian state.

Israeli officials embraced the proposals, which appeared to take the Palestinians by surprise.

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A top aide said Bush would return to the region at least once before he left office in a year to gauge progress in talks on the main issues of the decades-old conflict. Spurred by Bush’s visit, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed Tuesday to launch those negotiations soon.

In remarks to reporters at his hotel in Jerusalem, Bush said that any accord “will require mutually agreed adjustments” to the lines drawn for Israel in the late 1940s “to reflect current realities.” That position supports Israel’s demand to keep large Jewish settlement clusters built near Jerusalem on land captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

But Bush also emphasized that new borders should give the Palestinians a “viable and contiguous” state.

He also suggested international compensation for Palestinians and the descendants of those who fled before the Jewish state’s formation in 1948. In doing so, he implicitly rejected the long-standing Palestinian demand for refugees’ “right of return” to Israel.

Bush offered no ideas for resolving conflicting claims to Jerusalem and its holy sites, the issue he said could be the toughest of all.

The president’s guidelines are not new. But his national security advisor, Stephen J. Hadley, said Bush was summarizing them in an effort to guide the peace talks.

“They are consistent with understandings we have reached with his administration,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. “We see this as a positive basis for moving on.”

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, said late Thursday that he had not seen Bush’s statement, which was issued hours after the president visited the Palestinian leadership here.

“It’s not his job to make demands and set conditions,” Erekat said. “The president himself said he was not here to dictate the terms of a settlement. That’s our task as negotiators.”

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Looking to ‘road map’

Bush had set a limited goal for this visit, his first to Israel or the West Bank as president: to kick-start the peace process and nudge the two sides to start fulfilling a 2003 plan backed by the U.S. known as the “road map” in order to improve the climate for negotiations.

On Thursday he appointed Lt. Gen. William Fraser III to monitor progress on the plan, which calls for Israel to freeze settlement activity and the Palestinians to act against militant groups that attack Israel.

Putting public pressure on Israel, Bush insisted on the removal of dozens of small unauthorized settlement outposts and echoed a complaint by Abbas that Israel was undermining his nascent Palestinian security forces by continuing to conduct raids in West Bank cities.

Israel, Bush declared here during a news conference with Abbas, “ought to help, not hinder, the modernization of the Palestinian security force” so it can take over the policing of those cities and quell militant activities.

The effect of Bush’s prodding will be measured in coming days. But after meeting Wednesday with Olmert and Thursday with Abbas, neither Bush nor his hosts offered any sign that his visit had overcome disputes over settlements, West Bank security and rocket attacks from Gaza, where the militant Islamic movement Hamas has ousted Abbas’ secular Fatah faction.

Regev, the Israeli spokesman, defended Israel’s raids. He said a three-day operation last week in the West Bank city of Nablus uncovered material for manufacturing rockets, an indication that the Palestinians’ security work was failing.

“We believe we have American understanding that Israel has to act to defend itself when required,” he said after Bush and Olmert held a working dinner Thursday, their second meeting in two days.

Seeking to define an achievement, Bush said in his statement that “both sides are getting down to the business of negotiating.”

But he acknowledged the intractable nature of the situation in Gaza, which all sides agree would be part of a Palestinian state. “I don’t know whether you can solve it in a year or not,” Bush said.

Bush is the first U.S. president to call explicitly for an independent Palestinian state. But many Palestinians here viewed his visit with cynicism.

“He has brought nothing new,” said Naser Farid, a 33-year-old shopkeeper. “Look what he did in Iraq. We do not expect him to help us. All he does is destroy.”

“I don’t see an effort to promote serious negotiations,” said Mouin Rabbani, a Palestinian analyst based in Amman, Jordan, for the International Crisis Group. “The Americans’ attitude is to get you in the negotiating room, close the door from the outside, cross their fingers and hope for the best.”

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In the role of tourist

Bush spent much of Thursday in the West Bank. He first visited Ramallah for meetings at the Muqata, the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters, which six years ago Israel stood ready to destroy with bulldozers to oust Yasser Arafat. Bush then traveled to Bethlehem, playing the unfamiliar role of tourist during a visit to one of Christianity’s most revered sites.

As Bush’s motorcade made its way from Jerusalem to Ramallah -- a teeming city that security demands turned into a ghost town, its streets empty of pedestrians who regularly force motor traffic to a crawl -- he traveled without stopping through one of the checkpoints that have become one of many points of angry contention between Israelis and Palestinians.

Fog led Bush to abandon plans to fly in aboard his Marine One helicopter, and the drive took him through a gap in a towering cinder-block barrier. It was erected along the length of the West Bank to keep Palestinians from entering Israel without permission and has come to symbolize set-in-concrete differences.

The president made no mention of the barrier during the news conference after he and Abbas, with whom he later had lunch, met for more than an hour. But Bush was sympathetic to both the Palestinian complaints about the checkpoints and Israel’s reliance on them.

“They create a sense of security for Israel; they create massive frustrations for the Palestinians,” Bush said.

“You’ll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped. But I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person.”

Bush, who rarely engages in sightseeing while traveling abroad, toured the Church of the Nativity and the grotto beneath it in Bethlehem with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The church is built over what Christians revere as the place where Jesus was born.

“For those of us who practice the Christian faith, there’s really no more holy site than the place where our savior was born,” he said.

And there, on Manger Square, Bush was confronted yet again with the anger and disputes at the foundation of his visit.

“No Peace with Settlements,” read a banner hung from a building across the square.

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james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

boudreaux@latimes.com

Gerstenzang reported from Ramallah and Jerusalem, and Boudreaux reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.


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