- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

President Bush yesterday said he will spend his second term trying to achieve peace in the Middle East now that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Mr. Bush had viewed as an obstacle to peace, is dead.

“We’ve got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state,” Mr. Bush said during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The president said he was receptive to Mr. Blair’s proposal for a Middle East peace conference next year, although he cautioned that he would need assurances that such a conference would bear fruit. Mr. Bush announced that he planned to travel to Europe soon after his inauguration in January, although not for the purpose of attending such a conference.

Both leaders denied Mr. Bush’s receptiveness to a Blair-sponsored peace conference, perhaps in London, amounted to “payback” for Britain’s support for the United States in liberating Iraq.

Asked by a British reporter whether he considered Mr. Blair his “poodle,” the president testily defended the prime minister as a “rock solid” leader who is “plenty capable of making up his own mind.”

“He’s a strong, capable man,” Mr. Bush said in the East Room of the White House. “He’s a big thinker, he’s got a clear vision, and when times get tough, he doesn’t wilt.”

Mr. Blair initially tried to brush off the “poodle” question by making a joke.

“Don’t answer ‘yes’ to that question,” he told the president. “If you do, I would be — that would be difficult.”

Turning serious, Mr. Blair disputed the notion he is seeking “payback” from Mr. Bush.

“We’re not fighting the war against terrorism because we are an ally of the United States,” he said. “We are an ally of the United States because we believe in fighting this war against terrorism.”

Neither leader mentioned Mr. Arafat by name, although both expressed their condolences to his followers.

“Our sympathies are with the Palestinian people as they begin a period of mourning,” Mr. Bush said. “Yet the months ahead offer a new opportunity to make progress toward a lasting peace.”

The president, who has often been accused of disengaging from the Middle East peace process, made clear he plans to vigorously engage in the process now that Mr. Arafat is gone. As a first step, he pledged American help in facilitating Palestinian elections for a new president.

“The Palestinians may decide to elect a real strong personality,” Mr. Bush said. “But we’ll hold their feet to the fire to make sure that democracy prevails.”

A senior administration official later explained what Mr. Bush meant when he pledged to hold the Palestinians accountable.

“Reform means that some people who have had power are going to lose some of it,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some people who have made a lot of money are going to find their opportunities to make money corruptly have disappeared.

“Some people who have had guns are going to have to turn in their guns,” the official added. “It’s going to be hard for the Palestinians.”

After the elections, Mr. Bush said the United States would pour even more assistance into the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We’ll mobilize the international community to help revive the Palestinian economy, to build up Palestinian security institutions to fight terror, to help the Palestinian government fight corruption, and to reform the Palestinian political system and build democratic institutions,” he said.

A second senior administration official said Mr. Bush would refrain from committing to a peace conference or naming a special envoy to the Middle East until Palestinian reforms were well under way.

“For right now, we don’t need to think about a conference and an envoy we need to get this work done,” the official said. “There may come a time when the president decides a conference would be useful now, an envoy would be useful now. Clearly, he hasn’t made that judgment today.”

Yet Mr. Bush did not want to send his ally home without at least a glimmer of hope that he would eventually attend a meeting.

“I’m all for conferences, just so long as the conferences produce something,” he said. “We had a long discussion about whether or not a conference could produce a viable strategy.”

He added: “If that conference will do that, you bet I’m a big supporter.”

At the same time, Mr. Bush acknowledged his window of opportunity for effecting change will not remain open forever.

“I hate to put artificial time frames on things,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’ve got one on my existence as president. It’s not artificial; it’s actually real.

“I’d like to see it done in four years,” he added. “I think it is possible.”

Ultimately, Mr. Bush emphasized that peace can be achieved only by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, even with the United States acting as a broker.

“It is impossible to think that the president of the United States, or the prime minister of Great Britain, can impose our vision,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to say: ‘Well, Bush wants it done, or Blair wants it done — therefore, it will happen.’ ”

Mr. Blair also offered a spirited defense of the president’s doctrine of “pre-emption,” which calls for removing threats like Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before they can harm the United States and other Western countries.

“Now, that doesn’t mean to say we try and interfere with every state around the world,” he said. “But it does mean that there’s been a shift, and I think a shift quite dramatically — since 9/11.”

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