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Bush Reaffirms US Backing for Palestinian Statehood

President Bush Monday, starting three days of diplomacy at the United Nations, met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and reaffirmed U.S. support for Palestinian statehood. Mr. Bush also met Middle East "Quartet" envoy Tony Blair in an effort to build momentum for a U.S.-organized Middle East peace conference in November. VOA's David Gollust reports from our U.N. bureau.

The President's very first meetings in New York were with the Palestinian leader and Mr. Blair - in a gesture that underlined the priority the Bush administration is giving to the November conference and the drive for a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At a photo session capping a 45-minute meeting with Mr. Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Mr. Bush said the Palestinian leadership shares his vision of a democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, and that Mr. Abbas can expect full U.S. support in efforts to achieve it:

"I have known the president for quite a while," said President Bush. "I am convinced that he is dedicated to the formation of a Palestinian democracy that will live in peace with their neighbor Israel. And I believe the Prime Minister of Israel is dedicated to the same vision. And therefore as I told the president, the United States of America will work as hard as we possibly can to help you achieve the vision."

The Bush-Abbas meeting was preceded late Sunday by a ministerial level meeting at the U.N. of the international Middle East "Quartet" - consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

The grouping heard its first report from Mr. Blair, who became the Quartet's special envoy to the region after stepping down as British prime minister in late June.

It also endorsed the Bush administration's plan for an international conference in November that U.S. officials hope will boost the regional peace process despite the split in Palestinian ranks that has left the militant Islamic movement Hamas in control of Gaza.

Prime Minister Fayyad, a U.S. educated economist who took over the Palestinian government after the break with Hamas, joined Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni Monday at a Norwegian-organized meeting of international donors to the Palestinian Authority at U.N. headquarters.

At subsequent press event, Mr. Fayyad said he assured participants that the intra-Palestinian dispute, a situation he insisted was temporary, need not halt progress toward peace with Israel and Palestinian statehood:

"The political process can definitely proceed," said Salam Fayyad. "The mere fact that there is an exceptional circumstance that currently prevails in Gaza is in no way an obstacle to getting the process to proceed, the political process. The Palestinian Authority represents the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO represents all sorts of Palestinian people. It's fully empowered to negotiate with the state of Israel."

Mr. Fayyad rejected an Israeli declaration last week of the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip as a "hostile territory" and dismissed the idea of initially declaring statehood only in the West Bank, saying Gaza will always be an integral part of the Palestinian homeland.

For her part, Foreign Minister Livni said the depiction of Gaza was only a "description of reality" but said the Israeli government's concept of Palestinian statehood also includes both the West Bank and Gaza:

"When we are talking about the future Palestinian state - because I know there is a kind of conspiracy theory talking about an Israeli vision of dividing the Gaza strip from the West Bank - not at all," said Tzipi Livni. "And I clearly said also this morning that the idea of a Palestinian state referred to the Gaza strip and West Bank as well."

Livni said stagnation in regional peacemaking is not in Israel's interest and that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is working to make the situation of the Palestinian authority easier.

The international donors group known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee has been dormant since 2005 but is now aiming to hold an international pledging conference for the Palestinian Authority in December, after the U.S. organized political conference.