WASHINGTON — Hours after opening a Mideast conference, President Bush said Tuesday he was worried about the consequences if the search for peace failed but declared, "It is worth it to try."
Bush cautioned it would take time for Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement. The goal is to reach an accord within 14 months by the end of Bush's presidency.
"I don't think it's a risk to try for peace," the president said in an Oval Office interview with reporters from The Associated Press. "I think it's an obligation."
While Bush has been criticized for standing back from Mideast peacemaking for most of his presidency, he described himself as "very engaged, up to the moment" in bringing Israel, the Palestinians and more than 40 countries together for a conference in Annapolis, Md., to launch the first major peacemaking effort in seven years. The last significant attempt at Mideast peacemaking was at the end of the Clinton administration in 2000. Its failure was followed by a Palestinian uprising and violence.
He pronounced the Annapolis gathering a "successful conference" — primarily because of the international participation that he said he had worked very hard personally to make a reality. "A moment like today just doesn't happen. It requires work to lay the groundwork for," Bush said.
His goal was to put both leaders in a better position to make concessions, when they face enormous pressure from domestic factions.
"They're going to have to make tough choices," the president said. "And what they're going to need is they're going to need the international — particularly the neighborhood — saying it's OK."
Bush said Annapolis was "the beginning of an outline of a vision" of two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace.
"The danger is for the Palestinians that unless there's a vision described, that people can aspire to, hopeful, it is conceivable that we could lose an entire generation —or a lot of a generation — to radicals and extremists," Bush said.
"There has to be something more positive. And that is on the horizon today," the president said.
From here on, Bush described his role in the peace process this way: "I work the phones, I listen, I encourage, I have meetings. I do a lot of things."
He wouldn't say either way whether he thought he would eventually travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories to help move things along. "We'll see. You don't have to be in a particular country to have influence over whether or not the process moves forward. But I'd like to go Israel. I'd like to go to Saudi Arabia," Bush said.
On other issues Bush said:
—Vice President Dick Cheney is "in good shape" despite a history of heart problems, including an episode of atrial fibrillation Monday that was corrected when doctors administered an electric shock to restore his normal heartbeat. Bush said his father had a similar condition and "jumped out of an airplane at age 83."
—He hopes that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf honors his pledge to take off his uniform and shed his role as head of the army, as Musharraf promised he will do on Wednesday. "He ought to lift the emergency law" as well, Bush said. "It's hard for me to envision a free and fair election under emergency law."
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Bush said he was comfortable that Musharraf has done what is needed to protect Pakistan's nuclear arms from falling into the hands of extremists.
The president spoke cautiously about Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup who returned to Pakistan on Sunday from exile. "I don't know him well enough," Bush said. Sharif has good relations with Pakistan's religious parties and has raised doubts about his commitment to battling the Taliban and al-Qaida. "I would be very concerned if there was any leader in Pakistan that didn't understand the nature of the world in which we live today," Bush added.
—Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be "a major threat to peace." Bush dismissed concerns raised when he spoke recently about the prospects for World War III if Iran obtained nuclear weapons. "I think this `march to war' claim is pretty well created by, you know, punditry," he said.
Bush said expectations of whether the Annapolis conference is a success or failure will be set over time, because "The negotiations between Israel and Palestine aren't going to occur in one week."
"Obviously, I am concerned about the consequences of a failed conference — or a failed process in this case. It's not just a conference, it's a failed process. On the other hand, it is worth it to try, because the Middle East needs to have the liberty agenda prevail."
Bush said a vision of the outlines of a Palestinian state would help settle the divide between Abbas' Fatah party and the militant Hamas movement that governs the Gaza Strip.
"One of the powers of having a state defined is that it'll serve as a catalyst to marginalize extremists who have no vision, at least they don't have a positive vision," he said. "What you're watching is the development of a state which becomes something that people like Abbas and reasonable moderate people can say `Support us and this is what you'll end up having, support the other bunch and you'll have war.'"
He said there was little possibility of a state, though, if the Palestinian territories remain divided between governance by Fatah and Hamas.
"There can be a vision for what a Palestinian state would look like," Bush said. "But it's going to be very difficult for that Palestinian state to come into being so long as there are terrorists who are able to exploit a weak government and launch attacks against their neighbors."
Video: Bush to hold Mideast summit In opening the high-stakes Mideast peace conference, Bush read a joint agreement among Israeli and Palestinian leaders who pledged to reach a peace pact by the end of 2008. Negotiations would begin within weeks to establish a democratic Palestinian state that will live alongside Israel.
Negotiations on the joint statement had broken down Monday night over one paragraph that the parties believed went too far into issues that are to be negotiated.
On Tuesday morning, Bush pulled Abbas and Olmert aside to impress upon them the need to issue a joint statement at the conference, and representatives from all three sides were dispatched from a larger meeting of the principals and their advisers to finish drafting it. They came to an agreement about 25 minutes later by simply taking out the disputed paragraph.
During the talks, Bush told Olmert and Abbas that their negotiations could change the course of history and that their courage would define the success of future negotiations. Bush told the leaders he was ready to intervene if they needed help: "I'm only a phone call away."
"We can cheer you on but we're not going to try and negotiate it for you," Bush told them. "You are going to have to do that."
Later, after the interview, Bush's national security adviser said the president is "committed" and "available" to help.
"And to the extent the parties think it's useful for him to have a role, he's prepared to play it, because he thinks this is a real priority, and an opportunity we don't want to miss," said the adviser, Stephen Hadley.
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