As President Bush began talks here Wednesday to push forward peace negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted that any accord with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was unlikely without a halt to continuing rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
Bush's visit was accompanied by fresh violence and protests. Palestinian [terrorists] in the Gaza Strip fired volleys of rockets and mortar rounds at southern Israel, calling the attack a message of "rejection" of Bush's visit. One rocket crashed into an infant's bedroom in Sderot. A teenager was lightly injured by shrapnel.
In Gaza City, several hundred Hamas supporters, chanting "Death to America," staged a protest march, burning Israeli and American flags and holding a banner depicting Bush as a snake.
Delivered as Olmert stood alongside Bush on his first presidential visit to the Holy Land, the prime minister's remarks signaled that any peace deal could not be limited to the West Bank, where Abbas' Fatah movement is dominant, but would have to include an end to violence from Gaza, where the militant Islamic group Hamas seized control in factional fighting in June.
"We made it clear to the Palestinians, they know it, and they understand that Gaza must be a part of the package," Olmert said, "and that as long as there will be terror from Gaza it will be very, very hard to reach any peaceful understanding between us and the Palestinians."
On the first leg of a Middle East tour that includes five Arab nations but not Gaza, Bush promised to push Palestinian leaders on security matters and lend whatever pressure was needed to expedite talks yet said he cannot "butt in and actually dictate the end result."
The president also issued a stern warning to Iran to avert provocations such as the reported threats that Iranian speedboats posed to U.S. warships over the weekend.
"Iranian boats came out and were very provocative, and it was a dangerous gesture on their part," Bush said at a joint news conference with Olmert. "There will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple. And my advice to them is, `Don't do it.'"
The dual discussion of an Israeli-Palestinian accord just as militants defiantly staged new rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and the continuing tensions with Iran underscored the fragility of the region as Bush undertakes his eight-day tour. Bush was scheduled to meet Thursday with Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, after traveling to the West Bank city of Ramallah.
At Wednesday's news conference, Olmert also vowed that Israel would not build "any new settlements" or expropriate Palestinian land, a nod to the requirements of a U.S.-backed peace plan known as "the road map." But he indicated that construction would continue in the large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank and in areas Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war.
"We have made it clear that Jerusalem, as far as we are concerned, is not in the same status," Olmert said. "The population centers are not in the same status."
The road map requires Israel to freeze "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)."
In response to a reporter's question, Bush insisted that unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank must be dismantled, as stipulated in the road map. "We've been talking about it for four years. The agreement was, get rid of outposts, illegal outposts, and they ought to go."
"As to the rockets . . . my first question is going to be to President Abbas, `What do you intend to do about them?'" Bush said. "I believe that he knows it's not in his interests to have people launching rockets from a part of the territory into Israel."
The president said he is holding out hope that the "stars" are finally aligned for peace talks, with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders earnestly committed to reaching an agreement and several neighboring Arab leaders displaying a willingness to support them.
Yet the achievement of a peaceful two-state solution, which Bush first articulated as U.S. policy in 2002, remains no nearer today. The welcoming refrain of a children's chorus that greeted Bush upon arrival served as a reminder, with the eight young performers singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Although analysts say Olmert and Abbas have made no progress since their stated commitment to negotiate a lasting peace at a summit that Bush convened in Annapolis, Md., in November, Olmert pointed to this week's assignment of two leaders from each government to begin discussing the "core issues."
"I view this as an historic moment," Bush said. "It's a historic opportunity, first of all, to work together to deal with the security of Israel and the Palestinian people."
The White House maintains that what may be achievable by year end is an agreement over the "outlines" of the borders of an independent Palestinian state. Yet the White House also insists that the Israelis and Palestinians must hew to the road map, which requires Israel to freeze settlement construction and the Palestinians to crack down on violent militants. "There have been a lot of . . . distractions," said Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser. "The Palestinians are very concerned, obviously, about settlements. The Israelis are very concerned, obviously, about the rocket attacks."
While the U.S. is encouraging an agreement, the White House insists, only Olmert and Abbas can deliver it.
"Abbas and Olmert need to get the negotiating track started," Hadley said aboard Air Force One en route to Israel.
"If it looks like there needs to be a little pressure," Bush told Olmert, "I'll be more than willing to provide it."
Yet, asked by a reporter whether he is concerned by the lack of progress since Annapolis, Bush said: "Implicit in your question is whether or not the president should butt in and actually dictate the end result of the agreement . . . In my judgment, that would create a non-lasting agreement."
Yet, despite little to show so far for their renewed push to negotiate, the leaders tried to maintain an air of optimism surrounding the meetings with Bush.
"Time is so precious," said Israeli President Shimon Peres, in a ceremonial greeting of Bush after his arrival in Jerusalem.