NEW YORK – Trying to breathe new life into the Mideast peace process, President Bush got an immediate reminder Monday of the difficulty of his task when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that a U.S.-brokered conference should deal with “issues of substance.”
Palestinians and Israelis can’t agree on an agenda for the international session, expected to be held in the United States in November, though they are meeting regularly in preparation. Palestinians want it to produce an outline for a peace deal, while the Israelis want more vague declarations.
Appearing before reporters with Abbas after an hour-long meeting that also included Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Bush didn’t mention the conference. He promised the United States “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,” Bush said.
But Abbas said the meeting should be the precursor to “full negotiations on the permanent status.”
Bush’s Mideast focus came as he opened a three-day trip here for the annual U.N. General Assembly.
Five years ago, he became the first U.S. president to fully and publicly call for a separate, independent Palestine. He has taken heavy criticism since, however, for his reluctance to ask hard compromises of Israel and to put American capital on the line to get a deal.
But in July, the president announced he would organize an international conference on the Middle East, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is shuttling to the region and back to build momentum. The White House also announced Monday that first lady Laura Bush will travel to the Mideast in October. Her country itinerary was not released, but White House press secretary Dana Perino said one purpose of her trip is “to promote U.S. public diplomacy.”
Bush stepped in with his own talks with Abbas and Fayyad, and a separate one-on-one session alone with Abbas. He aimed to prepare for the peace conference by bolstering the two moderate leaders.