WASHINGTON – President Bush pledged Friday to invest re-election “capital” into Middle East peace talks, aimed at creating a new Palestinian state before he leaves office in four years.

“We’ll do what it takes to get a peace,” Bush said after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who urged him to get more involved in the Middle East after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

During a joint news conference with Blair, Bush also said he would visit Europe shortly after his Jan. 20 inauguration, part of what aides called an effort to improve global relations that frayed over the Iraq war.

The president stopped short of endorsing Blair’s proposal for a major Middle East peace conference, saying he wanted to make sure the meeting “could produce a viable strategy.”

“I’m all for conferences just so long as the conferences produce something,” Bush said.

He also held off naming a special Middle East envoy, another suggestion made by Blair and European allies.

Administration aides said they want to first see the Palestinians elect a new leader to replace Arafat, something scheduled to happen within 60 days.

“We are going to develop a strategy so that once the elections are over, we will be able to say, “Here’s how we will help you,”‘ Bush said.

Blair, under domestic political pressure for supporting Bush in Iraq, called this a “crucial time” to “revitalize and reinvigorate the search for a genuine, lasting and just peace in the Middle East.”

In the meantime, Bush and Blair vowed to stay the course in Iraq, even as the president warned that “violence could escalate” leading up to elections there.

“The success of democracy in Iraq will be a crushing blow to the forces of terror, and the terrorists know it,” Bush said.

The administration also sees democratic elections as the key to a new Palestinian state.

That’s easier said than done, analysts said, and Arafat’s death won’t smooth the path; the new Palestinian president will lead a deeply divided people, some of whom still want the destruction of Israel while others deplore terrorist attacks on the Jewish state.

“That’s going to require diplomatic skill, but also a lot of political skill,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program with the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies. “There are zillions of factions.”

The world can help, Bush said at the White House, but it is up to the Palestinian Authority and Israel to forge the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace.

Both he and Blair called on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to follow through on plans for disengagement of Israeli settlements and troops from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

As he seeks European help with the Middle East, Bush must win over skeptics who said he leaned too much toward Israel in his first term.

Critics also faulted the Bush administration for putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner while proceeding with the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Blair backed his American counterpart on Iraq, to his political detriment at home as most constituents opposed the war. Aides said that has made him more determined to get Bush more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Critics of the prime minister have called him Bush’s “poodle,” and a British reporter asked the president “if that’s the way you may see your relationship.”

Blair laughed – “don’t answer yes to that question,” he joked to the president – while Bush seemed annoyed, defending his trans-Atlantic colleague as a “big thinker” who “doesn’t wilt.”

“When the criticism starts to come his way – I suspect that might be happening on occasion – he stands for what he believes in,” Bush said. “That’s the kind of person I like to deal with.”

While not discussing Arafat’s death in detail, Bush said, “We’ve got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state.”

Bush said he would like to see it happen while he is president, but noted he is term-limited.

“I hate to put artificial time frames on things,” Bush said. “Unfortunately, I’ve got one on my existence as president – it’s not artificial, it’s actually real.”

(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-BLAIR

AP-NY-11-12-04 2102EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.