By Phil Stewart
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Robert Gates on Friday became the first U.S. Defense Secretary to visit the West Bank, meeting Palestinian leaders keenly aware of every little nod to their hopes of achieving statehood.
Children in Ramallah stared as the long motorcade of U.S. cars wound through the streets of the city north of Jerusalem.
With U.S. diplomacy fully stretched over revolts in the Arab world and the air war with Libya, Gates was looking to revive stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, before another war fills the vacuum they have left for six months.
"It is a great pleasure for me to welcome Secretary Gates to Palestine," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said.
"This is a time of great challenge throughout the region. But also a time of opportunity, requiring a redoubling of the effort aimed at pursuing the cause of peace, justice and security."
Gates noted that he was "the first American secretary of defense to visit Ramallah," the Palestinians' de facto capital and seat of Palestinian Authority ministries and the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas.
"I look forward to our talks ... obviously the political developments around the region, but also the prospects for a two-state solution," he said, referring to the elusive treaty that would end the 62-year-old conflict and create a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.
US-ISRAEL TIES STRONGEST
The visit to Ramallah was another milestone for Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration who is expected to step down later this year. The former CIA director marked the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq last year and oversaw a buildup in the war effort in Afghanistan.
Following the route often used by his Obama administration colleague and peace envoy Senator George Mitchell, Gates first had talks in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of America's closest ally in the turbulent region.
Netanyahu said Gates, who later went to the Jordanian capital Amman, had "been a champion of peace and security and our partner seeking to bolster our common security and defense interests in this area."
These days, security challenges were "legion," the Israeli leader said, referring to armed threats from Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the political uncertainties over much of the Arab world.
Referring to a week of rocket attacks from Gaza and a deadly bomb planted near Jerusalem's central bus terminal, Netanyahu noted expressions of support from President Barack Obama, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and other leaders.
"I think this says that civilized countries have a common stake in fighting terrorism and we want to make sure that we make it clear to the terrorists that any civilized society will not tolerate such wanton attack on its civilians," he said.
Gates said he believed that "at no time in the history of our two countries has our defense and security relationship been stronger than it is today."
Relations between Netanyahu and Obama were strained by the diplomatic frustrations U.S. envoy Mitchell has encountered in getting peace talks re-started.
They remain stalled by a bitter dispute over Israeli settlement building in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, on land where Palestinians hope to build their state.
Mitchell succeeded last September and Netanyahu and Abbas met face to face. But the process collapsed when Netanyahu's 10-month moratorium on settlement building ended.
The Israeli leader refused to extend it and Abbas said he would not continue the talks unless and until the construction ceased totally.
(Writing by Douglas Hamilton)