WASHINGTON (AFP) — President George W. Bush expressed confidence Wednesday that an upcoming US-sponsored Middle East conference would lay the foundation for a Palestinian state and broader regional peace.
His optimism came despite Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas' warning that he would skip the talks unless it yielded concrete results, and accusation that Israel was hampering peace efforts.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, currently on a Middle East shuttle diplomacy mission, said gaps between Israel and the Palestinians were still large after four days of talks with leaders in the region.
But Bush, speaking at a White House news conference, said he was encouraged by Rice's briefings to him in the run up to the peace conference in the fall, while cautioning about Washington's facilitator role in the talks.
"We can facilitate that, but we can't force people to make hard decisions. They're going to have to do that themselves, and I'm encouraged.
"I'm encouraged from what Condi tells me is going on in the Middle East. The attitude is, 'let's work together to lay out that vision for the sake of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and it's possible.'"
As Washington attempts to galvanize the Middle East peace process after nearly seven years of deadlock, Bush said, "I believe that we will see a democratic (Palestinian) state despite moves to dampen the plan by "extremists."
"I'm optimistic this can be achieved and we'll continue working to that end," he said, as the Palestinians pinned their hopes on Washington to pressure Israel to advance pre-conference talks.
Abbas called for a timetable on reaching a deal with Israel, after talks with Rice in Ramallah, West Bank on Wednesday.
"Time must not be lost because that's not in anyone's interest. We cannot go to the meeting at any cost. It is unacceptable to go there at any cost," he said.
Israel and the Palestinians should reach agreement on a "clear document" that would provide the basis of a future peace treaty to end their decades-old conflict, the Palestinian leader said.
Disagreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the content of the document, which negotiating teams are drawing up to serve as a basis for the conference, has been seen as a possible cause for delaying the talks.
The Palestinians want a detailed agreement and timeframe for implementing solutions to the thorniest issues in the conflict, while the Israelis want a more vague document with core issues left until later and no timetable.
Bush underlined the need for "a vision" of what a Palestinian state would look like, saying the Palestinians, who "have been made promises all these years, need to see there's a serious focused effort to set up a state.
"And that's important so that the people who want to reject extremism have something to be for," he said.
"So this is a serious attempt, and I'm pleased with the progress," he said of the efforts to bring the Middle East leaders to the table.
At the news conference, Bush also refused to comment on media reports that an Israeli air strike in Syria last month hit a nuclear site, saying no "clever ruse" would get him to talk.
"This is not my first rodeo," the president told reporters trying to pry information from him on the mysterious September 6 attack.
His comments came as Syria denied media reports suggesting that its UN envoy had said a nuclear site was hit in an Israeli air strike last month, insisting there was no such facility on its soil.
According to a New York Times report on Sunday, Israeli warplanes bombed a site that Israeli and US intelligence believe was a partly built nuclear reactor possibly modelled after one in North Korea.
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