By Tabassum Zakaria
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney,starting a visit on Saturday to try to push forwardIsraeli-Palestinian peace talks, said Washington would neverpressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security.
Palestinians accuse Israel of undermining theU.S.-sponsored peace talks by expanding Jewish settlements,refusing to remove West Bank roadblocks and mounting offensivesagainst militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip who firecross-border rockets into the Jewish state.
"America's commitment to Israel's security is enduring andunshakable, as is Israel's right to protect itself alwaysagainst terrorism, rocket attacks and other attacks from forcesdedicated to Israel's destruction," Cheney told a joint newsconference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"The United States will never pressure Israel to take stepsthat threaten its security."
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called Cheney's comments"inciteful and completely biased in favour of the Israelioccupation".
He said it "confirms the United States is a partner toIsrael in its war against our people and against the GazaStrip".
Olmert said his talks with Cheney would include concernsabout Iran and Syria, and that "we are anxious to carry on thepeace negotiations with the Palestinians".
Cheney said the U.S. role was not to "dictate the outcome"of the peace talks, launched at a conference in Annapolis,Maryland, in November with the goal of reaching a statehoodagreement before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office inJanuary.
"Reaching the necessary agreement will require toughdecisions and painful concessions by both sides but America iscommitted to moving the process forward," Cheney said.
"We want to see a resolution to the conflict, an end to theterrorism that has caused so much grief to Israelis, and a newbeginning for the Palestinian people."
Cheney will visit the occupied West Bank over the weekendand meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well as PrimeMinister Salam Fayyad before leaving for Turkey, his last stopon a nine-day visit to the Middle East region.
Israel tightened its economic and military cordon aroundthe Gaza Strip after Hamas Islamists routed Abbas's moresecular Fatah forces and seized control of the coastalterritory in June.
Bush made his first presidential visit to Israel and theWest Bank in January and said he was optimistic a peace dealcould be reached before he left office. He is expected to makeanother trip soon.
The peace talks have shown little sign of progress and havebeen slowed by increasingly heated disputes over Jewishsettlement building near Jerusalem and an Israeli offensive inthe Gaza Strip that killed more than 120 Palestinians.
The United States says neither Israel nor the Palestinianshave done enough to meet their commitments under a long-stalled"road map" peace plan.
The plan calls on Israel to halt all settlement activityand to uproot outposts built in the West Bank withoutgovernment authorisation. It asks the Palestinians to rein inmilitants.
Palestinians want the United States to put pressure onIsrael to halt Jewish settlement expansion as well as to liftsecurity restrictions for Palestinians in the occupied WestBank.
With U.S. backing, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire talks areunderway that could bring a halt to rocket fire from Gaza aswell as Israeli military operations in the territory, thoughIsraeli officials have played down the chances any lull willlast.
(Additional reporting by Avida Landau in Jerusalem andNidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Adam Entous; Editing byRobert Woodward)