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Cheney In Israel To Discuss Peace Process

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney reassured Israel on Saturday that Washington wouldn't pressure it to take steps that would endanger its survival, and expressed hope for a "new beginning" for the Palestinian people in their own state.

U.S. President George W. Bush has dispatched Cheney to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the next two days to try to get rocky peace talks moving, despite recent bloodshed. The vice president, who is on a 10-day trip to the Mideast, arrived in Jerusalem after two days in Saudi Arabia.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged at a U.S.-sponsored conference in November to try to forge a peace deal by the end of the year, before Bush leaves office. But little visible progress has been made because of ongoing violence and Israeli construction on land Palestinians claim for a future state.

"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 forces dedicated to Israel's destruction," Cheney told reporters shortly after arriving for a meeting with Olmert at his Jerusalem residence.

"The United States will never pressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security," he added, without elaborating.

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, which Hamas has controlled since routing Abbas-allied security forces in June.

There has been a recent lull in the Gaza violence, however, amid Egyptian efforts to broker a truce.

The U.S. publicly shuns Hamas because of its history of suicide bombings and its commitment to Israel's destruction. Privately, however, it appears to be quietly supporting the truce attempts, hoping a halt to violence would give peacemaking a better chance.

In Jerusalem on Saturday, 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 goodwill" as it 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.

The vice president also said "we must not and will not ignore darkening shadows of the situation in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Syria and in Iran, and the forces there that are working to derail the hopes of the world."

In welcoming Cheney, Olmert mentioned Iran first when outlining the subjects he planned to discuss with the vice president. Israel considers Iran to be the greatest threat to its survival, and rejects Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is not designed to produce arms.

Olmert also said the two would discuss peacemaking and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that waged war with Israel in 2006.

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, Maryland, to kick off the latest effort to resolve the decades-old conflict, and visited the region in January, followed by U.S. 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 phase, Israel was supposed to freeze all settlement construction. 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.

In Saudi Arabia, Cheney held 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 US$3 per gallon, and other major oil customers as a result of high energy prices.

Cheney and the king discussed some short-term, but mostly medium- to long-term ways, to affect the energy market, a senior Bush administration official said. The official spoke on conditions of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the private talks.

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