- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — President Bush tried to breathe new life yesterday into the Middle East peace process but got an immediate reminder of the difficulty of his task when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that a U.S.-brokered conference should deal with “issues of substance.”

The Palestinians and Israelis can’t even agree on what should come out of the international session, expected to be held in the U.S. in November. The Palestinians want it to produce an outline for a peace deal, while the Israelis want more vague declarations.

Appearing before reporters with Mr. Abbas after an hourlong meeting that also included Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Mr. Bush didn’t mention the conference. He promised that the U.S. “will be a strong partner” in establishing an independent state for Palestinians.

“I believe that the vision of two states side by side in peace is achievable,” Mr. Bush said. “We want to help you realize that goal.”

But Mr. Abbas said teams of Palestinians and Israelis will negotiate so that the issues are “ready and right” for the conference. He said the meeting should be the precursor to “full negotiations on the permanent status.”

“We have faith and trust,” Mr. Abbas said, emphasizing a hopeful tone about the process. “We believe very strongly in your vision of establishing a Palestinian, independent, viable state.”

Mr. Bush’s Mideast focus came as he opened a three-day trip here for the annual U.N. General Assembly.

His talks with Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad were aimed at preparing for his administration’s Middle East meeting and bolstering two moderate leaders. That task is especially important to the U.S. since the Palestinian territories split this summer into two camps ruled by rival governments — one controlled by Abbas in the West Bank and the other by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The president also received an update on the volatile region from his longtime ally Tony Blair, who after stepping down as British prime minister became the Mideast envoy for the Quartet — the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia. Mr. Blair just completed his first extended visit to the region in his new role.

Five years ago, Mr. Bush became the first U.S. president to fully and publicly call for a separate, independent Palestine alongside Israel. He has taken heavy criticism since, however, for his reluctance to put American capital on the line to get a deal.

But in July, the president announced that he would organize an international conference on the Middle East, in possibly his administration’s last chance to produce something on the decades-old conflict.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and the region to build momentum for the conference. In what she called a “very difficult” road ahead, the administration is hoping for a joint statement from Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as a first step toward more formal peace talks.

The White House also announced yesterday that first lady Laura Bush is traveling to the Mideast in October. Her country itinerary was not released, but White House press secretary Dana Perino said one purpose of her travels is “to promote U.S. public diplomacy.”

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