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Bush Renews Mideast Efforts

Bush's latest foray into the thicket of Middle East politics leaves him trying to salvage some sort of legacy in the region as time runs short on his presidency. Success is predicated on the ability of three deeply weakened leaders to find a way to come together. As Bush's approval ratings remain mired among the lowest of the modern era, Olmert's political position appears precarious following last year's war in Lebanon. And Abbas has just lost much of his territory.

Bush originally planned to deliver a speech last month on the anniversary of his 2002 speech committing to setting terms for a Palestinian state by now, but the Hamas takeover of Gaza forced the White House to shelve the idea for weeks. Now, with the appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair as a Middle East envoy, Bush decided to go forward in hopes of isolating Hamas.

Bush called upon Palestinians to reject Hamas. "This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians," he said. "And now comes a moment of choice." Making that choice, he added, is the only path to a Palestinian state. "To make this prospect a reality," he said, "the Palestinian people must decide that they want a future of decency and hope -- not a future of terror and death."

To shore up Abbas, Bush promised to send $80 million directly to his government, rather than to contractors as originally earmarked. He called for a new donors conference that would include nations such as Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. "The international community must rise to the moment and provide decisive support to responsible Palestinian leaders working for peace," he said.

The president also called on both sides to make concessions. Arab states, he said, should end "the fiction that Israel does not exist," stop the incitement of violence in official media and send cabinet-level visitors to Israel. Israel, he said, should support Abbas, remove unauthorized outposts and halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. Blair is expected to present additional ideas when he meets Thursday in Lisbon with Rice and the Quartet, which includes the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

But the fall conference was quickly met with skepticism among Middle East experts. "The Arabs will support any effort that will create some sense of movement," said Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution. "But it's hard to see how you're going to be able to sell the idea of a meeting and taking some political risk that entails accepting Israel without any guarantee of movement on a Palestinian state or any other incentives."

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington advocacy group, called it too little, too late. "The time to have acted would have been when [Abbas] was first elected and had the support of the majority of Palestinians, or when an Israeli prime minister was strong and popular," he said. "At this point, due to our neglect, neither leader has the sufficient support of their people to make the tough decisions needed to forge peace."

Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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