WASHINGTON – 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 just 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 praisealestinian 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.