By Rebecca Harrison
JERUSALEM, Jan 11 (Reuters) - After boldly forecasting an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty this year, George W. Bush ended a visit to the Holy Land on Friday at the site where Jesus is said to have declared: "Blessed are the peacemakers".
Sceptics say little short of divine intervention will turn such hopes expressed by Bush, a devout Christian, into reality in the twilight of a presidency that will end next January.
After only restrained involvement for the past seven years in the Middle East’s most intractable conflict, Bush voiced confidence during his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank that a treaty to create an independent Palestine would be signed before he left the White House in a year.
"To talk about a peace treaty to create a Palestinian state within a year is a fairy tale," veteran U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller told Reuters. "It does us no good to inflate and raise expectations that are unrealistic."
Aiming to energise U.S.-sponsored peace talks launched six weeks ago, Bush urged an end to Israel’s "occupation" of the West Bank and called on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make "difficult choices".
But negotiators face mammoth obstacles: both Olmert and Abbas are politically weak, violence rages almost daily in a Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas Islamists hostile to Abbas, and Bush’s reputation in the Middle East is burdened by the war in Iraq.
Critics note Bush has invested nowhere near the same amount of personal time and effort as his predecessor Bill Clinton, arguing he lacks the will and understanding to broker a deal that has eluded generations of American and other diplomats.
"The main problem here is that Bush is not prepared to invest American prestige in anything substantive," said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher. "He believes in his mantra of freedom, liberty and democracy sincerely but it won’t work in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."
"DEEDS NOT WORDS"
Weary of empty promises, Palestinians were deeply sceptical about the visit, expecting little from a man many view as the best friend Israel has had in the White House.
While Bush appeared to harden his tone toward Israel, he offered few specifics for Palestinians who want the Jewish state to halt settlement activity and ease security restrictions.
"It’s not his words we want, it’s deeds," said Palestinian political analyst Ali Jarbawi. "My wish for this trip was the removal of just one checkpoint in the West Bank — if he can’t manage that then what can we expect?"
Talks may also be hamstrung by a divided Palestinian house. Abbas wields little influence in Gaza, which is meant to form a major chunk of any future state but is controlled by Hamas, which opposes the peace talks and does not recognise Israel.
Israel regularly raids the Gaza Strip, targeting militants who hit southern Israeli towns with rockets and many say Abbas lacks the strength to rein in gunmen in Gaza and the West Bank — a step Israel has made a prerequisite for a final peace.
Olmert is also weak and could face new calls to resign at the end of the month when a commission of inquiry issues its final report on the 2006 Lebanon war. His fractious coalition government is under strain over the peace talks as right-wing members oppose many compromises, such as dividing Jerusalem.
"These leaders are prisoners of their constituencies not masters of their own policies," said Miller.
Even Olmert’s spokesman Regev said he saw any deal this year only as "outlining the framework" of a Palestinian state. Palestinian officials say a "framework agreement" would fall short of the final-status treaty they are seeking.
Some analysts said Bush risked wrecking the process and unleashing violence by promising too much too soon, and would do better to settle for laying the groundwork for his successor.
"Over-reaching won’t help," said Miller, who advised six U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. "My advice to him is forget the peace treaty and get busy." (Reporting by Rebecca Harrison; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)