With a change in Palestinian leadership, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke with renewed enthusiasm today for creating a democrat Palestinian state, citing a “great chance” to foster peace in the Middle East.
On the day Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was laid to rest at his West Bank compound, Bush and Blair said the best hope for the Middle East would be to support peacemaking efforts that would lead to separate, democratic states for the Palestinians and Israelis, existing side by side.
Palestinian officials have put Mahmoud Abbas, a political moderate, on track to succeed Arafat, whose autocratic style left him both revered and reviled among world leaders and his hopes for a Palestinian homeland unfulfilled.
In Arafat’s final years of power, Bush refused to meet with the man who led the Palestinian fight for a homeland for 40 years. But Arafat’s death creates a new opportunity for peace in the Middle East, a chance to break through the stalemate, Bush said.
“We have a great chance to establish a Palestinian state,” the president said as he and Blair stood in the East Room of the White House. Bush added, “The months ahead offer a new opportunity toward a lasting peace.”
Though Bush said the decision to elect a democratic government ultimately depends on the Palestinians, he added that Israel’s help, along with other nations, would be vital for establishing freedom in the would-be Palestinian state.
Blair said, “We’ve got the chance over the next few months, with the election of a new Palestinian president, to put the first marker down.”
The two leaders, whose countries remain closest of allies, spoke broadly of committing resources and lending support toward that goal without making specific commitments.
“I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state,” Bush said. “I believe it is in the interests of the world that such a truly free state develop. I know it is in the interest of the Palestinian people.”
Bush, who is trying to mend his relationship with many European countries stemming in large part from differences over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, said he intends to travel in Europe shortly after his inauguration in January.
But Bush was less than enthusiastic about participating in an international conference on creating peace in the Middle East, though he didn’t rule it out. Still, Bush and Blair said that two separate states would be in the world’s best interests.
Bush defended Blair against critics back home, who have lambasted him for supporting the war on Iraq. “He’s plenty capable of making up his own mind” on foreign matters, Bush said. “When times get tough, he doesn’t wilt.”
In trying to mollify doubters, Blair said, “We are not fighting the war against terrorism because we are an ally of the United States. We are an ally of the United States because we believe in fighting this war on terrorism . We share the same objectives, we share the same values.”