- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush says he remains confident that both sides in the Mideast peace process can agree on the definition of a Palestinian state by the end of his term.

Speaking in the Oval Office with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Bush said he assured Mr. Abbas that “the Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration.”

The president added, “I’m confident we can achieve the definition of a state.”

The session came as Palestinians and Israelis have made only plodding progress toward a peace deal.

Mr. Abbas said he was certain Mr. Bush wanted an agreement before the end of his term, and the U.S. president nodded in agreement. Mr. Abbas said, “I believe very strongly that time is of the essence.”

Mr. Abbas wants the Bush administration to press Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank — a step he says is needed to make progress in Mideast peace talks. The White House has acknowledged the talks have bogged down five months after both sides pledged to reach a deal by January.

“The Palestinians and the Israelis have made halting progress,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said before the meeting. She said both sides took “a few steps forward” after the Annapolis conference last November launched a new round of talks, and Bush visited the Mideast in January.

“There has been a stall in that,” Ms. Perino said. “While conversations have been ongoing between the two, the tensions still remain high on many of the issues, including the road map issues, one of them being settlements.”

In a meeting yesterday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Abbas said time was running out if that target laid out in Annapolis was to be met and that more pressure must be exerted on Israel to stop the expansion of West Bank settlements, according to the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Speaking later to the Arab-American Institute, Mr. Abbas said: “We are serious in having a serious negotiations to reach an agreement by the end of the year, but the gaps are still wide between us and the Israelis.”

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