An Oct. 12 article incorrectly said the Bloomberg News wire was first to report on a private meeting between President Bush and Palestinian officials. JTA, a news service for Jewish newspapers, was first to disclose the session. (Published 10/13/2005)
President Bush held a private 30-minute meeting in the Oval Office with a group of Palestinian officials last week, officials confirmed yesterday. The impetus for the rare session was presidential confidante and undersecretary of state Karen Hughes, who had received an earful of complaints about the administration's Palestinian policy during a just-completed tour of the Middle East.
Hughes, who is charged with burnishing the U.S. image, mentioned the Palestinian officials during a lunch with Bush last Wednesday, noting that they were in town preparing for the White House visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Oct. 20. It is a measure of Hughes's stature and direct access that a diplomat at her level can command a lunch with the president -- and also attract the attendance of Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.
Within minutes, the flabbergasted Palestinian officials -- who had expected to meet only with an assistant secretary of state at Foggy Bottom -- were told to come to the White House and meet the president. "I was absolutely surprised," said Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to Abbas. "They said, 'The president wants to see you,' and I said, 'The president of what?' "
The unannounced meeting was first reported yesterday by Bloomberg News.
Ordinarily, such a presidential session would take weeks of discussion and dozens of e-mails to lock into place. Edward G. Abington Jr., a former State Department official who advises the Palestinian Authority, said he had rarely seen something so unscripted. "I chalk it up to her," he said, referring to Hughes. "I think it's a reflection of how Hughes had gotten hammered over the Palestinian issue."
During Hughes's trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, she told reporters that she was surprised Bush had not received more credit for his efforts on the establishment of a Palestinian state. At almost every public forum, Hughes highlighted Bush's support for Palestinian statehood as a way of rebutting the perception that the administration leans toward Israel on the key issues needed to achieve a peace deal.
But Arabs have complained that Bush's support for statehood has been merely words. "The slogan of a Palestinian state is not enough," said Randa Siniora, general director of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group in Ramallah, West Bank. "These words have to be translated into real deeds."
Buttu said that, during the meeting, Bush was very reassuring to the Palestinian delegation, which included Rafiq Husseini, Abbas's chief of staff, and Ghaith Omari, an Abbas political adviser. He described Abbas as a strong leader who makes tough decisions, Buttu said, and said he will also make tough decisions as the Palestinians seek to build a nation.
When the Palestinians complained that an Israeli settlement expansion might make a Palestinian state impossible to achieve, Buttu said Bush replied: "Don't worry. I have some political sway with Israel and will use it if need be."
According to Buttu, Bush also told the Palestinians not to worry about the possibility that the Gaza Strip -- recently vacated by Israel -- will remain closed to the outside world because of Israeli military roadblocks and restrictive crossings.
Laura Bush dropped in on the meeting. Frederick L. Jones II, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on the specifics but said it included a discussion of democracy, ending terrorism and protecting human rights. He said that there was no effort to keep the meeting a secret but that not every presidential meeting is disclosed.