Bush vows second-term push for Palestinian state
US President Bush on Friday set a four-year goal of seeing a Palestinian state established and he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed to mobilize international support to help make it happen now that Yasser Arafat is dead.
"I'd like to see it done in four years," said Bush, elected last week to a second four-year term. "I think it is possible."
At a joint White House news conference after their talks, Blair said he and Bush would work to mobilize international support to help bolster institutions for a viable Palestinian state that deteriorated under Arafat.
"What we will do is anything that is necessary to make this strategy work," said Blair.
At the same time, Bush announced he would travel to Europe soon after he begins his new term early next year to stress that he wants to work together with European allies on the Middle East and other issues.
Much of Europe was in an uproar over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Bush was attacked on the campaign trail by Democrat John Kerry for souring ties with traditional allies. Bush said he would use the trip "to remind people that the world is better off, America is better off, Europe is better off when we work together."
Aides said the itinerary was uncertain but the trip would likely be in February and that one stop would be to Brussels for European Union and NATO talks.
But while Bush spoke of strengthening trans-Atlantic ties, he did not leap to embrace Blair's proposal for an international conference on the Middle East early next year in Britain. U.S. officials said it did not seem the time was right for a conference.
"I'm all for conferences, just so long as the conferences produce something," Bush said. He also seemed doubtful about naming a U.S. envoy to the Middle East any time soon.
Blair told Britain's Channel 5 afterward that "at some point along the way, I think there will be a coming together at a conference or some forum" but that he was not asking America to appoint an envoy or hold a conference now.
Bush and Blair said Arafat's death on Thursday in Paris offered an opportunity. As an immediate goal they pledged to help the Palestinians hold elections within the next 60 days to choose a new president to replace Arafat.
Bush said the Palestinians "may decide to elect a real strong personality, but we'll hold their feet to the fire to make sure that democracy prevails, that there are free elections."
One vehicle for mobilizing international support is through the Quartet group that produced the faltering "road map" plan which envisioned a Palestinian state by 2005. The United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations make up the Quartet.
A senior State Department official said the Bush administration was seeking to convene a Quartet meeting, possibly when Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) attends a conference on Iraq Nov. 22-23 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Bush and Blair said they would work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to complete Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. Bush gave no sign of applying additional pressure on Israel, saying it was up to both parties to come to an agreement.
Bush appeared irritated when asked by a British reporter if he considered Blair a U.S. "poodle" for supporting the Iraq war.
"Don't answer 'yes' to that question," Blair chuckled to Bush.
Bush said: "These are troubled times. It's a tough world. What this world needs is steady, rock-solid leaders who stand on principle, and that's what the prime minister means to me."
Blair dismissed any notion that he expected payback from Bush for having stood with him in Iraq.