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Bush wants deal on a Palestinian state before exit

Times Staff Writers

President Bush said Thursday that he wanted to lock in the outlines of a Palestinian state before he left office, even as Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, said the road was “paved with obstacles.”

With less than nine months to achieve his goal, Bush is holding a flurry of diplomatic meetings, including a session with Abbas in the Oval Office on Thursday, seeking to pressure Israel, the Palestinians and their Arab allies.

“A Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration -- a viable state, a state that doesn’t look like Swiss cheese,” Bush said.

He met Wednesday with King Abdullah II of Jordan. In May, he plans to make his second visit to the Middle East this year.

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Abbas, speaking with Bush during a photo session at the end of their roughly 35-minute meeting, said that “time is of the essence.”

Without spelling out specific challenges, he said: “I cannot say that the road to peace is paved with flowers. It is paved with obstacles.”

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resumed meetings this month after a six-week break, seeking to make progress on U.S.-sponsored peace talks. They have met only sporadically since a peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in November.

Serious questions remain about whether Bush, Abbas and Olmert can reach the necessary compromises to finalize the outlines of a Palestinian state by Jan. 20.

“Mahmoud Abbas has to not only convince the Palestinians he can get things from the Israelis and the Americans, but that he can get more than any other Palestinian leader. I don’t think he has made that case,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Alterman also is a former member of the State Department policy planning staff.

Also Thursday, the militant group Hamas proposed a six-month truce between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas political leader, announced the proposal in Cairo after meeting with Egyptian officials mediating between Hamas and Israel. Zahar said smaller militant factions from Gaza would meet in Cairo next week and would be asked to adhere to the terms of the truce proposal before the Egyptians presented it to Israel.

If a truce goes into effect, Egypt will work to extend it to the West Bank, Zahar said.

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Israel’s army withdrew its bases from Gaza in 2005 but continues to operate in the West Bank. It makes periodic incursions into Gaza to try to stop militants from firing rockets into Israel. Scores of Palestinians, four Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians have been killed in the fighting since early March.

Israel is not expected to reply to the truce proposal until the Egyptians present it.

Israeli officials have said they would have no reason to launch attacks in Gaza if militant groups halted rocket fire from the territory and weapons smuggling from Egypt. But they have said they favor a waiting period to assess whether a truce is working before they would lift restrictions on the movement of people and goods across Gaza’s border.

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

boudreaux@latimes.com

Gerstenzang reported from Washington and Boudreaux from Jerusalem.


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