President Bush (search) said Monday that even with a Palestinian election scheduled next month he was "realistic" about achieving democracy among the Palestinians.

The Jan. 9 election to choose a successor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) is only the beginning of the process of developing a democratic state, Bush told a news conference. However, he said he was hopeful and that "now is the time to move the process forward."

Bush's measured stance places the election in the context of an unfolding process, and not as itself conclusive evidence that the Palestinians in the post-Arafat period have turned the corner.

"I am realistic about how to achieve peace," Bush said.

"And it starts with my understanding that there will never be peace until a true democratic state emerges in the Palestinian territory," he said.

Bush called the election "the beginning of the process toward the development of a state" and "not the sign that democracy has arrived."

Prescribing patience, Bush said, "we cannot shortcut the process."

Administration officials also have taken a cautious stance on the idea of a Mideast peace conference being floated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair is expected to discuss his ideas with Israeli and Palestinian officials during a trip to the region this week.

But in a meeting Monday with visiting Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said that "we will not participate, but we understand its importance."