Bush Sees End to Israeli 'Occupation'

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- U.S. President George W. Bush told Palestinians on Thursday that he believed they would sign a peace treaty with Israel within a year that would give them a state and end what he called "the occupation."

Challenging skeptics on the first U.S. presidential visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, he told a news conference with President Mahmoud Abbas, "I believe it's going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office."

In some of the boldest language he has used since hosting November's Annapolis summit that restarted peace negotiations after a seven-year hiatus, Bush added, "I am confident that with proper help the state of Palestine will emerge."

Preparing to head to the Persian Gulf on Friday, Bush said he would urge Arab states to "reach out" to Israel but also spoke in firm terms of what Israel must do: "There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967," he said of the West Bank.

Israel must also ensure that the Palestinian state had viable borders -- not a "Swiss cheese" patchwork crisscrossed as at present by Israeli security defenses and Jewish settlements. At the same time, he expected Abbas to stop anti-Israel militants.

Bush also said he was unsure that the isolation of the Gaza Strip, a major part of any future state, could be solved within the year.

After meeting Abbas, Bush flew by helicopter to the West Bank city of Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

There the president, a devout Christian, spoke of his hope for a divine gift of freedom for all people and an end to the walls and checkpoints that ring the Palestinian town.