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Biden says Israel and Palestinians could be 'island of stability' in turbulent Middle East

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JERUSALEM - U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden on Monday tried to give a boost to the flagging Mideast peace process, saying he believes Israel and a future Palestine could become an "island of stability" in a turbulent region and expressing hope that leaders would make the "difficult decisions" needed for compromise.

Biden made his comments at a sensitive time. With few signs of progress after five months of U.S.-brokered talks, Secretary of State John Kerry is expected back in the region in the coming weeks to deliver a "framework" for a future peace deal.

Biden was in Israel on a one-day visit to attend the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Before leaving, he met Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sitting alongside Peres, Biden said that even as unrest shakes the wider Middle East, "the one place where there is a possibility for an island of stability ... is between the Palestinian people and the Israeli people in two secure states, respecting one another's sovereignty and security."

The sides have set an April target date for agreeing upon a framework for peace. But in recent weeks, they appear to have hardened their positions.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state.

Netanyahu wants to keep parts of the West Bank and says he will not share control of east Jerusalem, home to sensitive religious sites. He has also insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they say would undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel's own Arab minority.

"There are going to be very difficult decisions," Biden told Peres. "I, like you, believe the prime minister is up to it. It's not easy. None of this is easy."

He also said that "God willing," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "will be up to the task because he's got to make some difficult decisions."

While Abbas is attempting to negotiate peace with Israel, the rival Hamas militant group, which controls Gaza, has criticized the efforts.

On Monday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired four rockets toward Israel, including two that landed just several miles (kilometres) from where Sharon was buried in southern Israel.

The Israeli air force retaliated with a series of airstrikes on militant targets in Gaza. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said Israel would "seek them out, eliminate their capabilities and pursue them wherever they may hide."

In Gaza, a security official said training sites used by militants from Islamic Jihad and Hamas were hit. Some damage was caused but no injuries were reported, the official said, speaking anonymously as he is not allowed to speak with the media.

Israeli media reported that the Iron Dome anti-missile system was deployed near Sharon's ranch in southern Israel to protect against rockets during the funeral. The military declined to comment.

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