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Cheney heading to Mideast on peace mission

President Bush is sending Vice President Dick Cheney to the Middle East to get Israelis and Palestinians to hold firm to the promises they've made toward peace.
Image: Dick Cheney
Vice President Dick Cheney will head to the Mideast on Sunday to push for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush is sending Vice President Dick Cheney to the Middle East to get Israelis and Palestinians to hold firm to the promises they've made toward peace.

The move came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed the country's army to halt air strikes and raids into the Gaza Strip following a recent drop in rocket fire from the territory.

Bush said Monday in the Oval Office that Cheney would "reassure people that the United States is committed to a vision of peace in the Middle East."

As Cheney tries to help hold together fragile negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Bush says he's still optimistic that a peace deal can happen before he leaves office.

Cheney departs Sunday for a trip to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Turkey. Oil is also on his agenda, as the White House — coping with high energy prices that have socked American consumers — continues to push for greater oil production in the Mideast.

The vice president's visit comes on the heels of a brief troubleshooting mission to the Mideast by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She was able to pressure the moderate Palestinian leadership to resume peace talks with Israel, which broke off after a deadly Israeli military incursion into Gaza.

"I'm optimistic that we'll be able to achieve a vision that shows a way forward, and I'm optimistic leaders will step forward and do the hard things necessary so people don't have to live in deprivation and fear," Bush told reporters.

Mediation ongoing
Israeli defense officials and the Hamas rulers of Gaza on Monday said there was no formal truce in place. But the Olmert aides said he had ordered the army to scale back its operations to allow Egypt to proceed in mediation talks. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the talks.

Heavy violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel has hampered U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership of the West Bank. Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have set a December target for reaching a final peace deal.

Olmert told an audience Monday that the fighting in Gaza, along with a shooting that killed eight young Jewish students at a Jerusalem seminary last week, are aimed at undermining the peace efforts.

"Their purpose is to divert us from a path of peace," Olmert said. "There's no chance that they will succeed."

'We will not give up'
Despite the violence, Olmert added Israel is prepared to take a "significant, important and dramatic step" to advance peace. "We will not give up on this effort," he said.

Abbas briefly called off peace talks last week in response to an Israeli military operation in Gaza in which more than 120 Palestinians were killed, including dozens of civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials. The offensive was launched in response to intense Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel.

With U.S. backing, Egypt has been trying to mediate a truce between Israel and Hamas. Officials from the warring sides have both traveled to Egypt in recent days to discuss the matter.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Monday that no comprehensive cease-fire had been reached. But Hamas officials have said in recent days that Hamas will stop the fire if Israel halts its military operations.

Visiting Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II, Abbas said Monday that the basics of an agreement had been worked out and Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants were now seeking assurances they would not be the targets of Israeli manhunts

"I think the Israelis have agreed upon this, that this is the deal which we may hear about in the next few days," Abbas told reporters in Amman.

Decrease in rocket attacks
The Israeli army said it has not carried out airstrikes or land operations in Gaza since last Wednesday. Rocket fire fell significantly over the weekend. The army said two rockets were fired Sunday, down from a daily average of more than a dozen the previous week. During the recent lull, there have been no serious Israeli casualties from the rocket fire, though Palestinian militants killed two Israeli soldiers last Thursday in a roadside bombing along the Gaza border.

Since Israel and Hamas refuse to speak directly to each other, any understanding would not be put in writing, defense officials said. Israel and Hamas have reached informal truces in the past, though the arrangements have unraveled.

Hamas seized control of Gaza last June from Abbas' forces. Since then, Israel has pursued peace efforts with Abbas, who rules from the West Bank, while battling Hamas in Gaza both through military operations and an economic blockade on the area.

The cease-fire efforts reflect the growing recognition of Hamas' ability to upset the peace talks.

A Hamas official responsible for talks with Egypt, Ayman Taha, said Monday that the recent drop in rocket fire was part of Hamas' "field tactics," but did not stem from any understanding.

Hamas will not reach any agreement with Israel until it opens Gaza's border crossings, Taha said. Israel has in recent months prevented all except basic necessities from entering the territory, where 1.4 million Palestinians live, as part of efforts to get Hamas to stop the barrages.

Also Monday, Israel lifted a closure it imposed on the West Bank last week after a Palestinian gunman killed eight Israelis in a shooting on a Jewish religious school in Jerusalem.

The measures, which barred most Palestinians from entering Israel, was canceled "following security assessments," the army said.

The gunman who carried out the attack last Thursday was a Palestinian from east Jerusalem, an area under Israeli sovereignty. But Israeli officials suspected the man was assisted by West Bank militants. The gunman was shot and killed at the scene.