Bush confident about Palestinian state

April 24, 2008 5:28:58 PM PDT
President Bush sought Thursday to inject some confidence into the flagging Mideast peace process, pledging that the contours of a Palestinian state can still be reached before he leaves office. But old obstacles, mainly disputed West Bank settlements, continue to threaten that prospect. Bush's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yielded more commitments to peace but no immediate breakthroughs. The White House framed the conversation as a chance for Bush to learn how he can personally advance the stalled peace process when he visits Israel and other Mideast nations in May.

"I assured the president that a Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration," Bush said with Abbas at his side in the Oval Office. The U.S. president added: "I'm confident we can achieve the definition of a state. I'm also confident it's going to require hard work."

Bush's direct involvement in the peace process reflects a late push to score an elusive deal, one that could reshape a region and burnish his legacy. But he is up against formidable and familiar challenges that separate Israelis and Palestinians, plus a diminishing window for action.

His term ends in January. Many experts say the chances of a deal remain slim.

Unlike last month, when Bush said there was "plenty of time to get a deal done," his forecast was not quite that upbeat on Thursday.

Still, he heaped praise on Abbas and reassured him that he wants a contiguous Palestinian state, not a "Swiss cheese" arrangement of land.

Under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map," Israel is to halt settlement construction and take down unauthorized outposts built after March 2001 and Palestinians are to dismantle violent groups. The settlement issue, in particular, has raised tensions lately and prompted deep concerns from Abbas.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas told Bush that he remained committed to the agreement. But Abbas noted that little progress has been made and said it was critical that Israel meet its obligations, particularly the requirement to halt settlements, according to Erekat.

Bush, in his public comments, made no mention of the settlement matter. He seemed, instead, to emphasize the big picture.

"The thing that I'm focused on, as you are, is how to define a state that is acceptable to both sides," Bush said with Abbas at his side.

Both leaders, but Abbas in particular, did not hide their urgency given the bracket of Bush's final term.

"I believe very strongly that time is of the essence," Abbas said. "We are working very hard and hope not to waste any time."

Bush, who met with Jordan's King Abdullah II on Wednesday, is heading back to the Middle East in May to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary. He also is expected to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where he will meet Abbas at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

The core unresolved issues remain the final borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem, disputed Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees.

"A lot of this is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis, who committed to trying to work something out by the end of the year," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "And we are hopeful that we can continue on that path."

Abbas said peace would require Israel's withdrawal from the "occupied Arab and Palestinian territories." He said that, in turn, would lead many Arab and Islamic countries to normalize their relations with Israel.

Bush praised Abbas as a man who "rejects the idea of using violence to achieve objectives, which distinguishes him from other people in the region."

Abbas' moderate and Western-backed government rules the West Bank, the territory that would eventually form the bulk of an independent Palestinian state. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized control of Gaza and serves a rival force to Abbas, is not involved in the peace negotiations with Israel.

Abbas wants a peace agreement by January with timetables and specifics leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and not just a "declaration of principles" as suggested by some Israeli officials.

"We are doing everything we can in order to seriously negotiate and reach a peace that will be satisfactory to both the Palestinian side and the Israeli side, a peace that would be promoted around the world," Abbas said in the Oval Office.

--- Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report.