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Bush traces footsteps of Jesus on Holy Land

world Updated: Jan 11, 2008 12:56 IST
Jerusalem

US President George W Bush was to trace the footsteps of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land on Friday as he ended a mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories predicting a treaty within a year.

The devout Christian who once said Jesus was his favourite philosopher was to tour the Sea of Galilee, the area where Christ delivered his "blessed are the peacemakers" Sermon on the Mount.

Bush started his day by touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, which commemorates the more than six million Jews slaughtered in Nazi Germany,

He heads to Kuwait in the early afternoon at the start of a tour of allied Arab states in the oil-rich Gulf, where what Bush calls the Iranian "threat" is expected to top the agenda.

It is Bush's first visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank since he assumed office in 2001, aimed at scoring a foreign policy triumph during his last year as president by sealing a long-elusive Middle East peace deal.

The American president predicted on Thursday that a peace treaty would be signed before he left office in January 2009 and urged both sides to make the "difficult choices" to enable the creation of a Palestinian state and end Israel's 40-year occupation of Arab land.

"There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967," he said after two days of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

A peace agreement "must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."

"The establishment of a state of Palestine is long overdue. The Palestinian people deserve it, and it will enhance the stability of the region, and it will contribute to the security of the people of Israel. A peace agreement should happen and can happen by the end of this year."

He also called on Arab countries "to reach out to Israel, a step that is long overdue."

However, a final deal will have to see a mutually-agreed modification of borders, Israelis ending settlement expansion, Palestinians dismantling "terror infrastructure" and international mechanisms for solving the issue of Palestinian refugees, he said.

The two sides will have to work out the issue of Jerusalem, often considered the most intractable of the core issues dogging the decades-old conflict.

Negotiations were revived amid great fanfare in November after a near seven year freeze but have faltered since over Jewish settlement expansion and Israeli-Palestinian violence, underlining the tough task ahead.

Bush will return to the region at least once more before his term ends to further push the peace efforts, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said.

As part of the spiritual part of his visit, Bush prayed and lit a candle on Thursday at the sixth century Byzantine Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem where Jesus is said to have been born in a stable.

On Friday he will fly to the Sea of Galilee and visit the ruins of Capernaum, the seaside village where Christ lived and taught after moving from nearby Nazareth, his home for the first 30 years of his life.

Capernaum is close to where Jesus is said to have miraculously fed 5,000 people with loaves and fishes.

Bush was also to travel on to the Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus is said to have given his famous Sermon on the Mount in which he summarised the law of God.

The verse "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" has been invoked by past leaders attempting to resolve the Middle East conflict.

The next leg of Bush's tour in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia aims to boost support for his policy of isolating Iran over its controversial nuclear programme.

Kuwait, which has thousands of US troops based in the emirate, is expected to welcome Bush as a friend but is wary over Washington's possible use of force against Iran.

Bush began his regional tour in Israel on Wednesday with a warning that Iran posed "a threat to world peace" and should not be allowed to develop the know-how to build a nuclear weapon.

He also warned Tehran of "serious consequences" if it attacked US warships in the Gulf.

On Sunday three US Navy vessels and Iranian speedboats were involved in an incident in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf.

Tehran accuses Washington of using the incident in the strategic waterway -- a vital conduit for energy supplies -- as a propaganda stunt to paint Iran in a bad light during Bush's Middle East trip.