Cheney Focuses on Mideast Talks

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 23, 2008

JERUSALEM, March 22 -- Vice President Cheney on Saturday night began a weekend of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders intended to rev up a peace process that has yielded scant public progress in the four months since it began.

Speaking beside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Cheney said that the United States was "committed to moving the process forward" but that "it is not America's role to dictate the outcome."

"We want to see a resolution to the conflict, an end to the terrorism that has caused so much grief to Israelis, and a new beginning for the Palestinian people," he said.

The talks are aimed at creating a Palestinian state in a way that does not compromise security in Israel.

Cheney insisted that the United States "will never pressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security."

President Bush has called for the two sides to reach a framework for peace by the time he leaves office in January 2009, and in recent weeks high-level envoys have been traveling to the region to try to nudge negotiations along.

Cheney's visit comes amid growing disenchantment on both sides over a process that began with guarded optimism in November at an international conference in Annapolis, Md. Since then, Israel has announced plans to expand settlements, major violence has flared in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinians temporarily walked away from the negotiating table.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in an interview with The Washington Post this week that the past four months since Annapolis have been "very difficult and very bad for the Palestinian people."

Fayyad criticized Israel for not living up to its obligations in the West Bank under the 2003 "road map" for peace, which called on the Jewish state to dismantle internal checkpoints, stop settlement construction and remove illegal outposts.

Fayyad said the result of the inaction had been a weakening of the Palestinian Authority, Israel's partner in peace talks.

"We have witnessed, if anything, deterioration in just about every facet. The economy is not moving, unemployment is terrible," Fayyad said. "The peace process is not moving with the pace necessary to produce outcomes that were stated as objectives at Annapolis."

Unless that changes, officials in the Palestinian Authority government will be "has-beens for sure," said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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