WASHINGTON – With only 10 months left in his term and Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed over renewed violence, President Bush said Tuesday there is "plenty of time" to get a Mideast peace deal before he leaves.
"This is a process that always has two steps forward and one step back," Bush said after meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "We just need to make sure that it's just one step back."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the region this week trying to rescue peace negotiations from a low point.
Open warfare has engulfed the Gaza Strip in the last week. After Palestinian militants fired rockets into southern Israel, the Jewish state launched a major offensive in the Gaza territory that is controlled by the militant Hamas movement and used as a base for the rocket launches. The offensive prompted the moderate Palestinian leadership in control of the West Bank territory to walk out of peace talks.
But, said Bush, "Ten months is a long time. It's plenty of time to get a deal done." He noted that Rice was pushing the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to resume talks.
"I am optimistic that they can conclude tough negotiations," he said. "I'm still as optimistic as I was after Annapolis," the site of a U.S.-backed international Mideast peace conference in Maryland late last year.
Bush, noting his typical opposition to timetables, said he remains firm on getting a peace deal done: "There happens to be a timetable, as far as I'm concerned, and that is I am leaving office." The president's term ends on January 20, 2009.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has suspended peace talks in protest of an Israeli military offensive that killed more than 100 Palestinians in Gaza.
Abbas on Tuesday called on the Israeli government "to halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed, for us and for them, to reach the shores of peace in 2008."
His public comments were a disappointment for the United States, which had hoped for a firmer commitment to renew negotiations launched by the Bush administration at a the Annapolis conference. Rice looked on, lips pursed, as Abbas called Israel's action unjustified "under any pretext."
Rice is also planning to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"She's making our views known that we expect these leaders to step up and make hard decisions," Bush said.
The United States blames Hamas for inciting violence. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip last July and is deemed by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization.
Bush lauded Abdullah, saying "The United States has no stronger friend in the Middle East than Jordan." In turn, Abdullah hailed Bush's commitment to the peace process.
"The words and discussions that we've had this morning will have, I think, a very great response back in our part of the world," Abdullah said.
Bush also addressed the political uncertainty in Lebanon, where his administration blames Syria for violent interference.
"I am extremely disappointed that the Syrian leader continues to make it harder for the Saniora government to succeed," Bush said. "And I really don't appreciate the fact that they've made it hard for this government to elect a president."
After their meeting and remarks to reporters, Bush and Abdullah joined first lady Laura Bush and Queen Rania of Jordan for a private lunch in the family dining room of the White House residence.