- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

President Bush, speaking yesterday as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat lay gravely ill in a French hospital, said that he anticipates progress toward Middle East peace during his second administration.

But the president also differed with British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s designation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the single most important issue facing the world today.

“I laid down a very hopeful strategy in June of 2002,” Mr. Bush said in reference to his speech endorsing a Palestinian state.

“And my hope is that we’ll make good progress,” he told reporters. “I think it’s very important for our friends the Israelis to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their border. It’s very important for the Palestinian people to have peaceful, hopeful future.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Blair characterized the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as “the single most pressing political challenge in our world today.”

At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Bush was asked whether he agreed with Mr. Blair, and the president’s response did not quite match that of his staunchest ally in global affairs.

“I agree with him that the Middle East peace is a very important part of a peaceful world,” Mr. Bush said.

Both U.S. and British officials sought to play down the difference, saying the president has made clear how important the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to him.

But they also conceded that Mr. Blair has domestic and other reasons to focus on the issue more than Mr. Bush.

Mr. Blair is expected to pay a price in elections, likely to be held next year, for supporting the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Just yesterday, a suicide car bomber killed three British soldiers and a translator at a checkpoint in Iraq, raising the prospect of a political backlash against Mr. Blair, who sent them to a dangerous area near Baghdad on Washington’s request.

“The prime minister has had the peace process as a top priority for years,” one British official said. “That will assume an even greater significance given that we hold the presidency of the Group of Eight [industrialized countries] and the European Union in 2005.”

Mr. Bush made his remarks during his first press conference since he won re-election on Tuesday.

He also reacted to a premature report of Mr. Arafat’s death.

“My first reaction is, God bless his soul,” he said. “And my second reaction is, is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.”

Mr. Arafat, 75, was fighting for his life in a French hospital, but Palestinian officials denied reports he had died.

Mr. Bush has never met Mr. Arafat, refusing to deal with him despite objections from European and other countries.

Diplomats and analysts expressed doubt yesterday that there would be frantic U.S. diplomacy to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in the near future.

“The Palestinians will be completely consumed with the succession of power after Arafat’s death,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In such a time, he added, the Palestinians are much more likely to show nationalistic, rather than conciliatory, attitudes.

“They are in a remarkably vulnerable position — the weakest in years — to accept a deal at this point,” said Mr. Alterman, who worked on the State Department’s policy planning staff at the beginning of the Bush administration.

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