By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008
President Bush sought to assure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday that a peace agreement with Israel remains possible, as he began to accelerate his personal diplomacy in advance of his second trip to the Middle East this year.
"The thing that I'm focused on, and you are, is how to define a [Palestinian] state that is acceptable to both sides," Bush said. "I'm confident it can get done."
Bush met with Abbas at the White House amid pessimism in the region about the prospects for forging a deal to resolve the core issues that have divided the Israelis and Palestinians, including the borders of a Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem. White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters yesterday the two sides have made only "halting progress" since November's Annapolis peace conference.
Abbas and other Palestinian officials came to Washington this week looking for help from the administration in easing politically problematic conditions on the ground, including ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Israeli checkpoints that make movement difficult for many Palestinians.
Many senior Palestinians are worried that such activities erode public confidence in the peace process, according to Ghaith al-Omari, advocacy director for the American Task Force on Palestine. Abbas is also under domestic political pressure to show results from his close relationship with the Bush administration.
Abbas did most of the talking in his session with Bush, Perino said. "The president let him have his say about his hopes, his concerns, his commitment, his frustration, his seriousness," she said. "The president reaffirmed for him his belief . . . they can define a Palestinian state by the end of the year, but they are going to have to put their shoulder behind it."
Bush leaves for Israel next month for a visit aimed at celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state, but he will also engage in personal diplomacy. Bush met Wednesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II and will meet again with Abbas next month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Some analysts have speculated that the meeting might amount to a kind of summit, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is considered unlikely to attend.
In comments at a White House photo opportunity with Bush, Abbas made no reference to Palestinian grievances -- though he alluded to the problems confronting peace negotiators. "I cannot say that the road to peace is paved with flowers," he said. "It is paved with obstacles. But together we will work very hard in order to eliminate those obstacles and achieve peace."