SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush, responding to Arab dismay about his praise for Israel, said on Saturday he was confident a deal on Palestinian statehood could be reached before he leaves office.
Despite scepticism over his chances of securing a peace agreement by the end of his term in January, Bush expressed optimism that a deal could be done.
Speaking after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush said he told Abbas that he was “absolutely committed” to working with Palestinians and Israelis to get a Palestinian state defined.
“I do so for a couple of reasons. One, it breaks my heart to see the vast potential of the Palestinian people really wasted,” he said. “It’d be an opportunity to end the suffering that takes place in the Palestinian territories,” Bush said. “And the second reason I’m for it is because it’s the only way for lasting peace.”
Palestinians say the Israeli occupation in the West Bank has created great hardship for them.
Abbas did not mention Bush’s speech to Israel’s parliament on Thursday in which he heaped praise on Israel but made only one reference to Palestinians’ aspirations for a state of their own. “We know very well that you personally as well as your administration are committed to reach peace before the end of 2008,” Abbas said. “We are delighted to continue our engagement with you.”
Bush, who will address Palestinian issues in a speech Sunday to the World Economic Forum, said the creation of a Palestinian state would be “an opportunity to end the suffering in the Palestinian territories.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had raised the issue of Bush’s speech to the Knesset in a meeting earlier on Saturday. “We detect on the American side some optimism and we told them that we have the same information but it is results that will reveal whether this progress which the parties speak of is real,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters.
“Time will tell how able the U.S. administration is to achieve its objectives but we must keep trying. We cannot leave the Palestinians in this tragic situation which we see in Gaza, or the West Bank,” he said.
On the way from the airport on the last leg of his Middle East tour, Bush’s motorcade passed a “peacemakers” mural on the side of the road, a reminder of past efforts on diplomacy in the region by his predecessors.
Bush’s visit to Israel to celebrate its 60th anniversary raised fresh doubts in the Arab world over his ability to act as an even-handed broker between Israel and the Palestinians. He hailed Israel as a “homeland for the chosen people” and pledged that Israelis could forever count on American support against enemies like Hamas and Iran.
Abbas, who wants Bush to put more pressure on Israel, has little leverage and is weak at home, governing only in the West Bank while the Islamists of Hamas control Gaza.
Israeli Prme Minister Ehud Olmert is also on the ropes, facing a corruption scandal that could force his resignation and possibly derail the peace process altogether.
Bush’s Middle East tour, his second this year, follows a U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November where Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to try to reach a peace agreement by the end of Bush’s term.
Since then, talks have bogged down over Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and violence in and around the Gaza Strip, where Hamas cross-border rocket fire has triggered a tough Israeli military response.