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Bush supports Palestinian state

WASHINGTON - President Bush sought Thursday to boost the flagging Mideast peace process by voicing fresh optimism about the creation of a Palestinian state. He said he remained confident that the definition of a state for the Palestinian people would be reached before he leaves office in January.

'I believe it's in Israel's interests and the Palestinian people's interest to have leaders willing to work toward the achievement of that state,' Bush said in an Oval Office meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

'People that can deliver that state, that vision, for the Palestinian people are sitting right here in the Oval Office - led by the president,' Bush said.

Bush spoke as his own administration acknowledged that talks have bogged down five months after both sides pledged to reach a deal by January.

'I'm confident we can achieve the definition of a state,' Bush said. 'I'm also confident that it's going to require hard work.'

Abbas headed into the meeting with the goal of prodding the Bush administration to pressure Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A halt on those settlements - one of the most disputed aspects of the long-running Mideast conflict - is one condition of the map to peace for both sides.

Bush made no direct mention of the settlement issue in addressing reporters.

Abbas said Palestinian leaders are 'doing everything we can' to reach a peace deal that would be satisfactory for his people and for Israel.

'I cannot say that the road to peace is paved with flowers,' Abbas said. 'It is paved with obstacles. But together, we will work very hard in order to eliminate those obstacles and achieve peace.'

Abbas said he felt Bush wanted to get a peace deal done during his term. Bush nodded in agreement.

'I believe very strongly that time is of the essence,' said Abbas, who has openly worried that time is running out to achieve the targets spelled out in the Annapolis, Md., peace conference of last year.

Abbas said peace would require Israel's withdrawal from all Arab-occupied territories. In turn, he said, 57 Arab and Islamic states would normalize relations with Israel.

Bush praised Abbas as a man who 'rejects the idea of using violence to achieve objectives, which distinguishes him from other people in the region.'

The two leaders took no questions.

Before the meeting, White House press secretary Dana Perino said, 'The Palestinians and the Israelis have made halting progress.' She said both sides took 'a few steps forward' after the Annapolis conference last November launched a new round of talks, and Bush visited the Mideast in January.

'There has been a stall in that,' Perino said. 'While conversations have been ongoing between the two, the tensions still remain high on many of the issues, including the road map issues, one of them being settlements.'

Halting Israeli expansion in the West Bank is a major component of the so-called roadmap blueprint for peace.

Abbas aides said that on Wednesday he had pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for U.S. action on the matter.