Gates pushes peace amid bombings in West Bank

AP News
Posted: Mar 25, 2011 1:52 PM
Gates pushes peace amid bombings in West Bank

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad sounded willing to renew efforts toward peace with Israel. But he told the visiting American Pentagon chief that Palestinian entreaties to Israeli leaders were publicly rebuffed and met with vows for retribution for this week's bus-stop bombing and mortar attacks on Israel.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the first trip by a U.S. defense chief to the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, after meeting with Israeli leaders to push ahead with the peace process despite the recent violence in the West Bank. The West Bank would form the largest area of a future Palestinian state under a never-fulfilled, U.S.-backed peace plan. It has been considered relatively safe and stable.

"We both face a region that is in turmoil and that will present challenges but also potentially present opportunities," Gates told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early Friday morning during a brief statement in front of reporters before their meeting.

In a carefully calibrated message, Gates used his visits with Israeli leaders Thursday and Friday to both endorse their right to defend themselves while also urging them to be bold and not to allow the attacks to derail the peace process

Netanyahu, however, told Gates that civilized nations must make it clear to terrorists that wanton attacks will not be tolerated.

"We stand ready to act with great force and great determination to put a stop to it," Netanyahu said. "I know the United States has been doing the same and would do the same."

His comments reinforced Israel's determination to strike back, and echoed comments Thursday by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

From the Netanyahu meeting in Caesarea north of Tel Aviv, Gates made a long motorcade ride, winding through sun-splashed hills to the West Bank, where he and his staff transferred into armored cars for the drive past some of the contested Israeli settlements and through Palestinian checkpoints, protected by heavily armed guards.

He met Fayyad at his office in Ramallah, where his group Fatah is based. The two men sat side-by-side and spoke to reporters briefly before going into their meeting.

"This is a time of great challenge for our region," Fayyad told Gates, adding that it also presents an opportunity to redouble efforts to pursue "the cause of peace and justice and security."

Fatah represents more moderate views, is a rival of Hamas, and controls only the West Bank.

Hamas has ruled Gaza, on the opposite side of Israel, since seizing power in a five-day civil war against Fatah in 2007. As a wave of pro-democracy unrest reverberates through the region, both sides have faced growing calls to reconcile.

Gates also met privately with King Abdullah II of Jordan before heading back to Washington Friday.