Washington/Jerusalem : Even if Israeli and Palestinian leaders do not reach a peace deal by the end of 2008, there could be “an agreement on what a Palestinian state will look like”, US President George W. Bush told Israeli television.
“I’m optimistic that we can have the outlines of a state defined,” he told Channel 2 News in an interview broadcast Sunday night. “I’m optimistic because I believe (Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert and (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas want to achieve this objective.”
Olmert and Abbas pledged at the Annapolis conference in November to try reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by the end of this year.
But negotiating teams from both sides who have met to try to start the talks have so far made no progress.
Bush, who arrives Wednesday for a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas, said he thought the fact that he was “a known quantity” to Olmert and Abbas could prove a spur to progress.
“I believe the leaders know me, and I know them. … They’re comfortable with me. … Therefore, the question is, will they decide to make the effort necessary to get the deal done while I’m president. Maybe the next person won’t agree with the two-state solution, maybe the next person will take a while to get moving,” he told interviewer Yonit Levi.
Bush said Abbas, who is locked in political battle with the Islamic Hamas movement, which rejects a two-state solution to the conflict, had to be able to show gains from the diplomatic process with Israel.
“Abbas, who has agreed that Israel has a right to exist, must be able to say to his people, ‘Be for me, support me, and this is what can happen. If you follow the way of the terrorists and killers, this will never happen’,” Bush said.
Addressing the subject of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Bush said that if he were Israeli, he would “take the words of the Iranian president very seriously”, and said he did so as well.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and Jerusalem regards Tehran’s nuclear programme as a prime strategic threat.
“Iran was a threat, and Iran is a threat,” he said, and warned that if Tehran attacked Israel, “We will defend our ally – no ands, ifs or buts”.
The Iranian issue is expected to figure prominently in Bush’s talks with Israeli leaders during his upcoming visit.