JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush visits the Church of the Beatitudes on the shore of the Sea of Galilee on Friday during a Holy Land visit aimed at breathing life into Middle East peace talks.
After separate meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, Bush is leaving them with the message: “now is the time to make difficult choices.”
His first visit to Israel and the West Bank in seven years as president sought to create momentum towards establishing a Palestinian state, after a November summit in Annapolis, Maryland intended to jump-start peace talks.
The White House said he was likely to return to the region before his term ends in January 2009.
The Church of the Beatitudes, a Catholic Franciscan chapel, marks the spot where Jesus is believed to have preached his Sermon on the Mount, laying out core teachings and his call to “turn the other cheek”.
The church’s shape represents the sermon’s eight Beatitudes listed in the Gospel of Matthew, including “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Bush was also expected to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum where Christians believe Jesus performed miracles.
Bush said on Thursday he expected a treaty to be signed before he leaves office.
“Achieving an agreement will require painful political concessions by both sides,” he added.
He said the establishment of a Palestinian state was “long overdue” and would improve regional stability.
“The peace agreement should happen, and can happen, by the end of this year,” he said. “I am committed to doing all I can to achieve it.”
Bush is scheduled to leave for Kuwait later on Friday followed by visits to Arab allies in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
He will ask them to support his Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts and to help curb the growing regional influence of Iran.
“They can do a lot of things,” Bush said.
Arab allies could provide diplomatic support to Abbas, give him greater financial support, and “begin to reach out to Israel and indicate in a tangible way that they support this diplomatic process”, he said.
Bush’s efforts to curb Iran’s growing influence comes at a time of new U.S.-Iranian tensions over an incident involving ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
The United States protested formally to the Iranian government on Thursday over the incident, in which it says Iranian speedboats aggressively approached U.S. Navy ships.
Bush warned Iran this week of “serious consequences” if it happened again and said all options were on the table.
Editing by Andrew Roche