WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are pledging to rally global support for an independent Palestinian state, but say reviving stalled Mideast peace talks rests with those mourning the passing of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

At the White House on Friday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined Bush in suggesting that Arafat’s death created an opportunity to create a Palestinian state after decades of failed attempts at brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I’d like to see it done in four years,” said Bush, referring to the length of his second term.

Blair interjected, “What we are saying is, we are going to work flat out to deliver this.”

Elections for Arafat’s successor are to be held within 60 days, and Bush said he hoped the winner would embrace the notion of a democratic state. He had refused to even meet with Arafat, whom he regarded as the primary obstacle to peace with Israel.

“This is the first step in creating lasting, democratic political institutions through which a free Palestinian people will elect local and national leaders,” the president said. “We’re committed to the success of these elections and we stand ready to help.”

Bush also used his joint appearance to announce that he will visit Europe after his Jan. 20 inauguration – a trip intended to repair relations with allies, who have been upset by the Iraq war and what many perceive as Washington’s go-it-alone approach on foreign policy.

Reporters were told in a White House briefing that Bush would probably make the trip in February and that a stop in Brussels for meetings at either the European Union or NATO or both was also likely.

“In my second term, I will work to deepen our trans-Atlantic ties with the nations of Europe,” the president said. “We must apply the combined strength and moral purpose of Europe and America to effectively fight terror and to overcome poverty and disease and despair, to advance human dignity and to advance freedom.”

While Bush refused to embrace Blair’s proposal for a conference on the Middle East early next year, or calls for the appointment of a special envoy for the Middle East, he said the United States, Britain and other nations had an obligation to search for a path to peace. Neither leader, however, offered any new details of how that might be achieved.

“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. If you want to be helped, here’s what we’re willing to do,”‘ Bush said. “If you choose not to be helped, if you decide you don’t want a free, democratic society, there’s nothing we can do.”

Bush and Blair promised to mobilize the international community and world opinion to build up Palestinian political, economic and security institutions to create the foundation for a democratic state. Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, who is to meet on Monday with Secretary of State Colin Powell, said this week that the new Palestinian leadership “will have to prove itself” before a peace process can go forward.

Powell expects to meet with new Palestinian leaders soon, with discussions ongoing about time and place, a senior State Department official said.

Powell, meanwhile, expressed some uncertainty about how fast a Palestinian state could become a reality – a goal Bush once hoped to see accomplished in 2005. Powell told the Arab television network, Al-Arabiya, that Bush wants to see a Palestinian state as soon as possible but, “It would be a little hard for him to say, “There will be one in one year, two years, three years, four years, because it is truly up to the parties.”‘

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, speaking to The Associated Press in Ramallah, issued an appeal to Bush to “please make sure we have free and fair presidential elections in 60 days. If elections are obstructed by Israeli occupation, this will be the path of more chaos. This is your opportunity, this is a historic opportunity, we have an historic moment Mr. President. Seize it.”

Bush said he would work with Israel to complete its plan for withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank. But he did not pressure Israel to revive negotiations or freeze the expansion of settlements.

Israel endorsed Bush’s message, but said terrorism by the Palestinians must stop before there is a state.

“Bush is putting it as a challenge to the future Palestinian leadership,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “He says “It’s up to you and you have a new situation.’ … The fact is that there is a new era now. He is urging them to drop the Yasser Arafat legacy.”



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