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Bush Optimistic About Mideast Peace Process - 2003-06-09

U.S. President George W. Bush says he remains optimistic about the Middle East peace process, despite a new round of violence in the region.

The president made clear he is undeterred by the violence and will continue to push the peace process forward. He says he left the summit in Aqaba convinced Israel's Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas are prepared to work for peace.

"I am optimistic that responsible leaders have now got the message that we must combine to work to fight off the terror attacks, so that a peaceful Palestinian state can emerge," said President Bush.

Mr. Bush added that he knows the process will not be quick or easy.

"I understand there is going to be a lot of work to do," he acknowledged. "But I am prepared to lead."

Just how much work has become clear in the days since the Aqaba summit. On Sunday, five Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian militants. Prime Minister Abbas, who has denounced the violence, has said he will not use force against the militants, because to do so might spark a Palestinian civil war.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has come under sharp criticism at home for promises made in Jordan.

The Bush administration response seems to be keep the process going despite the setbacks, hold the leaders to their promises, and bolster Prime Minister Abbas.

"I recognize there are going to be extremes, particularly in the Palestinian territories, that want to blow up peace," said Mr. Bush. "But I think people are sick of it. The average Palestinian must understand that their lives will improve with the vision of Prime Minister Abbas."

The president said his new Middle East envoy, veteran diplomat John Wolf, will try to help Mr. Abbas follow through on his pledge to crack down on extremists.

"Ambassador Wolf will be on the ground soon, holding people to account, and working to strengthen Prime Minister Abbas, so that he can deliver on his promise, a promise he made not only on me personally, but a promise he made to the Israeli officials," he said.

After the talks in Aqaba, President Bush promised to keep a close watch on the peace process. He used the term "riding herd," meaning to work hard to keep the parties from straying from their commitments.