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Bush, Abbas Meet on Mideast Peace Efforts

U.S. President George Bush and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met at the White House Thursday to discuss Mideast peace efforts. Mr. Bush said he is confident an agreement on the definition of a Palestinian state can be reached before he leaves office in less than nine months. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports.

President Bush said he is confident that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can agree on the definition of a Palestinian state before he leaves office in January.

"I assured the president that a Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration, a viable state, a state that doesn't look like Swiss cheese, a state that provides hope," said President Bush. "I believe it is in Israel's interest and the Palestinian people's interest to have leaders willing to work toward the achievement of that state."

Speaking to reporters after their meeting, President Bush said agreeing on the borders of that state is going to be hard work, so he is returning to the region next month and will meet again with President Abbas.

White House officials say those talks will take place when President Bush visits Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

President Abbas said he is confident that under an Arab peace initiative more than 57 Arab and Islamic countries will normalize relations with Israel once Israel withdraws from occupied Palestinian and other Arab territories.

The Palestinian leader said he has confidence in the president's commitment to a comprehensive peace deal before January.

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

At the Annapolis, Maryland peace conference in November, Mr. Bush, along with the Palestinians and Israelis, pledged to make every effort to conclude an agreement by the end of 2008. U.S. officials have subsequently scaled back the language on what they expect to achieve, speaking recently about finishing an outline rather than reaching a peace agreement.

In addition to the final borders of a Palestinian state, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are divided over the fate of Jerusalem, new Israeli setttlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes. Israel says it will not accept a Palestinian right of return to homes within pre-1967 Israel.

Also Thursday, White House officials disputed a Washington Post story quoting from a letter the president sent to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon four years ago that the newspaper says implied the U.S. leader agreed to expanded Israeli settlements.

White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino said there is no such agreement and the president expects Israel to honor its obligation in the so-called road map peace plan to freeze settlement activity.