Cheney Assures Israel on Security Steps

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Vice President Dick Cheney said Saturday the U.S. has an "enduring and unshakable" commitment to Israel's security and its right to defend itself against those bent on destroying the Jewish state.

At the start of a weekend of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Cheney also said the Bush administration wants to see a "new beginning" for the Palestinian people and is committed to pursuing a Mideast peace deal.

Cheney's visit is part of the U.S. strategy to keep the pressure on the two sides, despite recent bloodshed, to agree on a framework for peace before President Bush leaves office in January.

"America's commitment to Israel's security is enduring and unshakable, as is our commitment to Israel's right to defend itself always against terrorism, rocket attacks and other threats from forces dedicated to Israel's destruction," Cheney told reporters before an evening meeting with Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

"America's committed to moving the process forward," Cheney said. But, he said, "it is not America's role to dictate the outcome." The U.S. wants to see a resolution to the conflict and will provide support and encouragement to help make that happen.

Cheney reaffirmed Washington's commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state and assured Palestinian leaders that "they, too, can be certain of America's good will" as the U.S. tries to help Israel and the Palestinians reach an accord.

"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.

He made direct mention of parts of the Middle East where the U.S. says efforts are under way to foment violence and undermine stability in the region.

"As we continue to work to peace, we must not and will not ignore the darkening shadows of the situations in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Syria and in Iran and the forces there that are working to derail the hopes of the world," Cheney said.

Speaking of the strong U.S. ally, Cheney said America "will never pressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security."

Olmert said Israel, too, is worried about Iran and is "anxious to carry on" negotiations with the Palestinians. His government is watching "the behavior of Syria and the Hezbollah" and shares concerns with the U.S. about attacks from Gaza against Israeli civilians.

Cheney, who just wrapped up two days of meetings in Saudi Arabia, planned to attend an Easter service Sunday in Jerusalem, then go to Ramallah in the West Bank for talks with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Bush asked Cheney to visit Israel to discuss the peace process and other regional issues in advance of Bush's trip in May to mark the 60th anniversary of the modern state of Israel, according to Cheney spokeswoman Lea Ann McBride.

Bush hosted a Mideast peace conference in November in Annapolis, Md., to kick off the latest effort to resolve the decades-old conflict, and visited the region in January, followed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in March. She plans to return in April.

After Olmert and Abbas agreed at the Annapolis conference to return to peace talks, they resumed along the outlines of a plan that calls for the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state through several stages. In the first, Israel was supposed to freeze all construction in West Bank settlements. The Palestinians were to dismantle militant groups such as Hamas that attack Israel.

Neither side fulfilled those initial obligations and recent violence has threatened progress.

Israel is conducting peace negotiations with Abbas' West Bank-based government, while waging a bloody battle with Hamas militants in Gaza, who have fired rockets at Israeli communities in southern Israel. Israel has retaliated with attacks that have killed scores of civilians in Gaza.

In Saudi Arabia, Cheney held private talks with King Abdullah on stabilizing the volatile energy market. It was not immediately clear whether Cheney asked the Saudi leader to increase oil production to hold down rising gasoline prices.

The White House contends that oil producers could suffer because of economic slowdowns in the U.S., where pump prices are topping $3 per gallon, and other major oil customers as a result of high energy prices.


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