JERUSALEM Vice President Dick Cheney affirmed America's "enduring and unshakable" commitment to Israel's security at the start of a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories Saturday.
Cheney's visit to the region comes as the United States tries to nudge Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, which are locked in a slow-moving U.S.-sponsored peace process. Negotiations have been repeatedly derailed by outbreaks of violence between Israel and militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have said that neither side was moving fast enough to fulfill its obligations under the so-called "road map" peace plan.
Although Cheney said Saturday that "tough decisions and painful concessions on both sides" were needed, he vowed, "The United States will never pressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security."
"America's commitment to Israel's security is enduring and unshakable," he said, "as is our commitment to Israel's right to defend itself always against terrorism, rocket attacks and other threats from forces dedicated to Israel's destruction."
With the 60th anniversary of Israel's creation approaching May 14, Cheney recalled that President Truman recognized the Jewish state just 11 minutes after its 1948 declaration of independence.
"From that moment, our two countries have been more than just allies. We've been friends special friends," he said before meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday night.
Olmert praised Cheney as "always a very good supporter and friend of the state of Israel."
Cheney will travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah today to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Cheney arrived in Israel after meetings with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah as part of a nine-day Middle East tour that ends later this week in Turkey. The Saudi monarch reportedly urged Cheney to push for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian talks before President Bush leaves office early next year.
A flurry of diplomatic activity on both the Israeli-Palestinian and intra-Palestinian fronts coincides with Cheney's visit.
Egypt is working to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, while Yemeni-sponsored negotiations seek to end the violent rivalry between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah party.
The militant Islamic group defeated the long-dominant Fatah party in January 2006 parliamentary elections, but the U.S. and the European Union suspended financial support in response. A short-lived unity government collapsed last summer, leaving Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and the U.S.-backed Abbas controlling the West Bank.
Egyptian officials held talks Saturday just across the Gaza border with representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two groups responsible for most of the rockets fired from Gaza at nearby Israeli towns.
Israel sealed Gaza's borders after the Hamas takeover, and one of the scenarios floated in the Yemeni talks would reopen the borders under the control of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israeli was monitoring the talks and was open to any solution that didn't cede control of the borders to Hamas.
"That would be self-defeating," Regev said. "We can't agree to a situation where a terrorist organization has any standing or authority on the border crossings."