Bush scowled when a British reporter asked about Blair's reputation among critics back home as the president's "poodle." But Blair laughed, and then Bush laughed, too, and gave an impassioned defense of his partner in the coalitions that attacked Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When he says something, he means it. He's a big thinker. He's got a clear vision. And when times get tough, he doesn't wilt," Bush said. "That's the kind of person I like to deal with. . . . I'm a lucky person, a lucky president, to be holding office at the same time this man holds the prime ministership."
Bush said the United States will let Palestinians decide on Arafat's successor without interference, noting that it is impossible for the United States or Britain to "impose our vision."
In the past, Bush has put much of the onus on the Palestinians to end terrorism and build political institutions. He made it clear yesterday that he still holds those expectations, Arafat's death notwithstanding.
"We'll hold their feet to the fire to make sure that democracy prevails, that there are free elections," he said.
Blair, who dined on smoked duck with Bush before flying back to London after a 24-hour stay, said Britain will do "whatever it takes." Blair said he will "work flat out to deliver" side-by-side states.
An administration official said later during a White House briefing that "in the post-reelection period, we wanted to very quickly send the message that we look forward to intense work with the Europeans."
"Some of that theme got drowned out in our own election cycle," the official said.
In a joint statement issued after the Bush-Blair meetings, the two countries said they had agreed to "mobilize international support" behind a plan to help build Palestinian economic, political and security institutions. While the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map" focused on building such institutions, the notion of a broad international effort appears to be new. The statement said the plan "will be developed intensively over the coming period of time in concert with all the relevant partners."
After leaving the White House, Blair told ABC's "Nightline" that a key part of the plan is to make sure that international donations to the Palestinian Authority are used "for the good of the Palestinian people" and not diverted to secret bank accounts such as those that are said to have been used by Arafat.
The joint statement also appeared to play down the importance of the road map, or at least indicate flexibility in interpreting it. The statement said the road map will be used "as a reliable guide leading to final status negotiations."
An official said at the briefing that the U.S. wants Israel " to facilitate as needed the Palestinian elections."
Israeli officials said they were pleased by Bush's comments, especially because the president sidestepped a question on whether Israel should freeze growth in West Bank settlements. Though a settlement freeze is required in the road map, Bush replied: "I believe that the responsibility for peace is going to rest with the Palestinian people's desire to build a democracy and Israel's willingness to help them build a democracy."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell later told al-Arabiya television: "The president's position on settlements is well known, and he wants to see the end of settlement activity."
In Bush's first term, the White House has only briefly engaged in resolving the Middle East conflict, only to step back repeatedly. Moreover, after President Bill Clinton failed to cinch a deal despite endless days of negotiations, Bush said he was not inclined to be so directly involved.
The one exception came when Bush attended a pair of summits on the Red Sea in June 2003, designed to give a boost to the road map. But the plan stalled when the Palestinian prime minister supported by Bush resigned three months later. The administration essentially disengaged again, except to support a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to unilaterally leave the Gaza Strip and a handful of settlements on the West Bank.