President Bush sought to boost the flagging Mideast peace process Thursday by voicing fresh optimism about the creation of a Palestinian state. He said he remained confident that the definition of a state for the Palestinian people would be reached before he leaves office in January.
"I believe it's in Israel's interests and the Palestinian people's interest to have leaders willing to work toward the achievement of that state," Bush said in the Oval Office with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"People that can deliver that state, that vision, for the Palestinian people are sitting right here in the Oval Office — led by the president," Bush said.
Bush spoke as his own administration acknowledged that talks have bogged down five months after both sides pledged to reach a deal by January.
"I'm confident we can achieve the definition of a state," Bush said. "I'm also confident that it's going to require hard work."
Abbas headed into the meeting with the goal of prodding the Bush administration to pressure Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A halt on those settlements — one of the most disputed aspects of the long-running Mideast conflict — is one condition of the map to peace for both sides.
Bush made no direct mention of the settlement issue in addressing reporters.
Abbas said Palestinian leaders are "doing everything we can" to reach a peace deal that would be satisfactory for his people and for Israel.
"I cannot say that the road to peace is paved with flowers," Abbas said. "It is paved with obstacles. But together, we will work very hard in order to eliminate those obstacles and achieve peace."
'Time is of the essence'
Abbas said he felt Bush wanted to get a peace deal done during his term. Bush nodded in agreement.
"I believe very strongly that time is of the essence," said Abbas, who has openly worried that time is running out to achieve the targets spelled out in the Annapolis, Md., peace conference of last year.
Abbas said peace would require Israel's withdrawal from all Arab-occupied territories. In turn, he said, 57 Arab and Islamic states would normalize 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."
The two leaders took no questions.
Before the meeting, White House press secretary Dana Perino said, "The Palestinians and the Israelis have made halting progress." She said both sides took "a few steps forward" after the Annapolis conference last November launched a new round of talks, and Bush visited the Mideast in January.
"There has been a stall in that," Perino said. "While conversations have been ongoing between the two, the tensions still remain high on many of the issues, including the road map issues, one of them being settlements."
West Bank factor
Halting Israeli expansion in the West Bank is a major component of the so-called roadmap blueprint for peace.
Abbas aides said that on Wednesday he had pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for U.S. action on the matter.
Abbas, who is struggling for authority in the West Bank against the militant Hamas movement that controls Gaza, wants a framework 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. He has said his talks with Bush will focus on achieving a real deal on core issues and not just promises.
Bush met with Jordan's King Abdullah on Wednesday. The White House meetings were a prelude to Bush's trip next month to the Middle East to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. He also was expected to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The administration had been holding out hope it could arrange a peace summit during the president's Mideast trip, perhaps at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where Bush is set to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The idea was to have Arab leaders endorse an interim statement demonstrating at least some progress, officials said.
But there are deep misgivings about such a meeting among both Arabs and the Israelis, given the slow pace of negotiations, and prospects for the summit are slim, officials said.
The core issues remain the final borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem, disputed Israeli settlements, refugees, water and future relations between the two states.