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Bush, Blair Back Palestinian Elections

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair say there is a new opportunity for peace in the Middle East, following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Speaking at the White House just hours after Mr. Arafat's burial in the West Bank, both men pledged to support elections for a new Palestinian leader.

Prime Minister Blair says the meeting with President Bush comes at a crucial time to revitalize and reinvigorate the search for Middle East peace.

Both leaders again expressed their sympathies to the Palestinian people following the death of Mr. Arafat, and President Bush said there is now a new opportunity to make progress toward a lasting peace.

"We look forward to working with a Palestinian leadership that is committed to fighting terror, and committed to the cause of democratic reform," he said. "We will mobilize the international community to help revive the Palestinian economy, to build up Palestinian security institutions to fight terror, to help the Palestinian government fight corruption, and reform the Palestinian political system and build democratic institutions."

President Bush says he is committed to the success of elections for a new Palestinian president and stands ready to help support the process.

Prime Minister Blair says as much as the international community is ready to assist, peace itself will only come when Palestinians are free to choose their own leaders. "We will do whatever it takes to help build support for that concept, to work through the details of it and make sure that it can actually be brought into being," he said. "But the bottom line has got to be that if you want to secure Israel, and you want a viable Palestinian state, those are two states living side-by-side, and they are democratic states living side-by-side, and we have got the chance over the next few months with the election of a new Palestinian president to put the first marker down on that."

President Bush says he and Prime Minister Blair will also work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to complete the Israeli disengagement plan from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Jewish settlements in those areas are an obstacle to further talks.

The two leaders took questions from reporters after more than an hour of meetings Friday and a two-and-a-half hour dinner Thursday evening.

Prime Minister Blair says Middle East peace must be the international community's highest priority. He is hoping to get President Bush more actively involved in the process following the death of Mr. Arafat, who President Bush refused to meet because he said he was an obstacle to peace.

While the president did not immediately appoint a special representative to the peace process as had been suggested, Mr. Bush did say he would spend U.S. political capital to further Middle East peace, and hopes to see an independent Palestinian state by the end of his second term in four years.

"We seek a democratic, independent and viable state for the Palestinian people. We are committed to the security of Israel as a Jewish state," he said. "These objectives, two states living side-by-side in peace and security, can be reached by only one path: the path of democracy, reform, and the rule of law."

President Bush and Prime Minister Blair also discussed the war in Iraq, elections in Afghanistan and European efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program. Mr. Bush said he hopes to further strengthen U.S.-European cooperation in his second term, and will visit Europe, he said, shortly after his inauguration in January.