WASHINGTON (AFP)- President George W. Bush held an unscheduled White House meeting with a group of Palestinian officials last week, The Washington Post said.
The meeting with aides of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas had been urged by Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, who last month visited the Middle East in hopes of repairing the US image in the region, US officials told the daily.
Hughes mentioned the presence in Washington of the foreign officials preparing for Abbas” White House visit on October 20 during a lunch with Bush a week ago, the officials said.
Within minutes, the daily said, the surprised Palestinian officials — including Rafiq Husseini, Abbas” chief of staff, and Ghaith Omari, a political adviser — were summoned to the White House to meet with the US 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?”"
Normally, such meetings with the US president take weeks in setting up.
Buttu said Bush was very reassuring to the Palestinian delegation, telling them Abbas was a strong leader who made tough decisions.
Confronted with complaints about an Israeli settlement that might hinder the Palestinian”s march to statehood, Buttu said Bush replied: "Don”t worry. I have some political sway with Israel and will use it if need be."
And on concerns over the possibility the Gaza Strip might remain isolated by Isreaeli military roadblocks, Buttu said the US president told his Palestinian guests not to worry.
A White House spokesman refused to comment on the specifics of the meeting, but said it included a discussion of democracy, ending terrorism and protecting human rights.
Bush appointed Hughes, a trusted aide and fellow Texan who has served as his communications chief, to lead an effort to improve perceptions of the United States amid fierce international opposition to the US-led war in Iraq in particular and to the Bush administration in general.
After her five-day tour of the Middle East, which ended September 30, Hughes said she found the trip enlightening and was not discouraged by the hostility expressed towards the United States.
Edward Abington, a former State Department official who advises the Palestinian Authority, told The Washington Post he was surprised by the rare, unscripted meeting that was held in the Oval Office.
"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."