President Bush yesterday suggested for the first time that a Palestinian state may not be created while he is in office.
Although the president has more than three years remaining in his second term, he did not express optimism about an autonomous Palestinian state by January 2009.
“I’d like to see two states,” said Mr. Bush, standing beside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House Rose Garden. “And if it happens before I get out of office, I’ll be there to witness the ceremony. And if doesn’t, we will work hard to lay that foundation so that the process becomes irreversible.”
The president, who last year abandoned his original goal of a Palestinian state by 2005 and set 2008 as the new goal, refused to declare a new timetable yesterday.
“Timetables are … an interesting thing. Everybody wants a timetable, it seems like, on different issues. And these are very complicated matters, where years of conflict and years of mistrust are being resolved by some basic truths,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Abbas said the timetable in the “road map” to peace — laid out by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — was sidetracked before the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“So many years passed by, more than four years we did not have any dialogue,” Mr. Abbas said in Arabic as Mr. Bush listened to a translator through an earpiece. “We did not have any talks. And now we have confidence. We need to rebuild and build on that confidence and on the relationship.”
Still, after an hourlong meeting in the Oval Office, both leaders expressed optimism that the road map was back on track.
“I’m a heck of a lot more confident today than … I was when I first came into office,” Mr. Bush said. “I know it’s nearly five years ago, and that’s an eternity for some, but there has been remarkable progress in this part of the world. And we’ll continue to work with the parties to achieve this important objective: two democratic states living side by side in peace.”
But he cautioned, “Things don’t happen overnight. Old feuds aren’t settled immediately. And it takes awhile.”
Mr. Abbas said Palestinians, who elected him as their leader about a year ago after the death of Mr. Arafat, will go to the polls in 100 days to elect a new legislature. With Israel’s full withdrawal last month from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian leader said, “the time has come to put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” and “to move quickly towards the resumption of permanent-status negotiations.”
But those negotiations — including agreements on permanent borders, the division of Jerusalem, and the fate of refugees and settlements — were supposed to be achieved by the end of 2005, according to the road map, which was ratified in April 2003.
The peace plan was delayed by years of deadly attacks by Palestinians and retaliatory attacks by Israelis. In addition, Mr. Bush refused to negotiate with Mr. Arafat, who appointed Mr. Abbas as prime minister but later ousted him from the post.
Both leaders said yesterday that there are many issues that still must be resolved before the Israelis and Palestinians can move to final-status negotiations.
Mr. Bush cautioned Mr. Abbas that “the way forward is confronting the threat armed gangs present to creation of a democratic Palestine.”
Mr. Abbas criticized Israel’s security wall, especially its location in Jerusalem, where the Palestinians intended to establish the capital of their state.
He said Palestinians must be able to cross between Gaza and the West Bank and urged the removal of roadblocks. He also said Israeli settlement construction should be halted and that Palestinian political prisoners should be released.
Mr. Bush supported Mr. Abbas, urging Israel to stop building settlements on the West Bank. “Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its road map obligations,” he said.