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Bush, Olmert pledge ongoing peace efforts at last meeting

Video by Luke BROWN , Louise DUPONT

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-11-25

In what may be their final meeting as heads of state, US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised their countries would remain committed to a mideast peace deal after the two men leave office early next year.

President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Middle East peace process which has so far failed to yield results will continue after the two lame-duck leaders leave office.

 

The close allies spoke at the start of a farewell meeting Monday before Bush leaves the White House on January 20 and as Olmert prepares to step down amid a corruption scandal after February 10 elections.

 

Although president-elect Barack Obama has vowed to continue to support the talks to end the 60-year conflict, the prospects of the process launched almost exactly a year ago at an international conference in Annapolis, Maryland remain shrouded in uncertainty.

 

"I believe that vision is alive and needs to be worked on," Bush said. "We strongly believe that Israel will benefit by having a Palestinian state, a democracy on her border that works for peace."

 

Olmert, on his part, said that the Annapolis process will continue because "a two-state solution is the only possible way to resolve the conflict in the Middle East."

 

Bush and Olmert, who wish to end their time in office with proof of some success, will use the talks to take stock of their work over the past three years, officials said.

 

But it remained unclear if they were to seek to draw up a document summarizing the latest round of talks.

 

The peace talks have made little apparent progress despite intensive meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and strong US backing, as all sides have acknowledged they would not meet their declared goal of inking a peace treaty before Bush leaves office.

 

Chances of a breakthrough seem dim as Israel heads for elections and the Palestinians remain deeply divided between Western-backed president Mahmud Abbas and the Islamist Hamas movement.

 

Olmert earlier met Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney as well as Democratic Congressman and Obama confidant Robert Wexler.

 

Another meeting with Rice has been set for 1600 GMT Tuesday.

 

Rice said on Sunday the peace talks were "in pretty good shape" and that the failure to reach a deal was "largely because of the political situation in Israel" following Olmert's resignation.

 

White House spokesman Tony Fratto also defended the state of the talks.

 

"There has been a great deal of progress. We're much further along than we would otherwise be were it not for the start of the Annapolis process," Fratto said.

 

Although they were unlikely to make any major decisions, the two were expected to discuss international efforts to halt Iran's controversial nuclear drive, which Israel and the US suspect is aimed at developing an atomic bomb, a claim denied by Tehran.

 

Olmert wants to clinch new commitments on Iran from his staunch ally before Obama, whose policy towards the Islamic republic has raised some concern in Israel, enters the White House, officials said.

 

Olmert will press Bush and Congress to allow Israel to purchase dozens of F-35 stealth fighter jets, which would considerably boost the Israeli air force's ability to carry out long-range strikes.

 

Over the past year, the United States has considerably increased its already tight defense ties with its ally, giving the Jewish state an unprecedented 10-year, 30-billion dollar defense aid commitment.

 

The aid comes amid growing US and international concern about Iran's missile and nuclear programs and statements by Iran's leaders predicting that Israel is doomed to disappear.

 

Israel, the region's sole, if undeclared, nuclear armed state, considers Iran its main strategic threat because of its nuclear program.

 

Olmert has repeatedly said Israel would prefer to use diplomatic and economic pressure to persuade Iran to abandon its program, but he has refused to rule out a military strike.

 

Monday's summit also served as an opportunity for both Bush and Olmert to reaffirm the close ties between the two allies that were considerably tightened under Bush's administration.

 

"I'm sure that we will continue our friendship for many years to come," Olmert told Bush.

Date created : 2008-11-25

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