President Bush set a goal yesterday of ensuring the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel before he leaves office in 2009. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side, Bush pledged to put the resources of the United States and the prestige of his presidency behind the quest.
"I'd like to see it done in four years," Bush said. "I think it is possible."
Bush, aiming to mend transatlantic ties that were frayed over Iraq, announced that the first foreign trip of his new term will be to Europe.
The president and the prime minister said the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was buried three hours before they spoke, provided a promising new chance for achieving what Bush called "a just and peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on two democratic states -- Israel and Palestine."
"I believe we've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state," Bush said in an East Room news conference with Blair, his closest ally. "I believe it is in the interest of the world that a truly free state develop."
Both leaders said they will use the next few months to mobilize global support for a Palestinian leadership committed to democratic reform and fighting terrorism.
The president's appearance with Blair, who has been prodding Bush to put more energy into Middle East overtures, opened an aggressive White House campaign to mend ties with Europe that were strained by the U.S.-British decision to invade Iraq over the opposition of some longtime allies.
Bush's trip to Europe is likely to be in February, aides said. He plans to visit the Brussels headquarters of NATO and the European Union, but his other stops were not announced.
The purpose of the trip, Bush said, is to "remind people that the world is better off, America is better off, Europe is better off when we work together."
Bush did not endorse any of the specific measures that Blair proposed -- including an international peace conference and the designation of a U.S. envoy to the Middle East -- but said he will do so if he believes they are practical.
"We'll do what it takes to get a peace," Bush said. "I'm all for conferences, just so long as the conferences produce something."
The White House has paid sporadic attention to the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Optimistic rhetoric has been dashed before, administration by administration, by repeated waves of violence and fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. Bush originally set a goal of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Bush made no mention of his frequent contention that democracy in Iraq would set the stage for Middle East peace.
The president's news conference with Blair and a private lunch and dinner for the two leaders were part of a White House effort to transform Bush's image from reelection candidate to statesman.