Bush and Blair vow fresh push to create a Palestinian state

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Creation of a Palestinian state is possible within four years, President George Bush said yesterday, and promised to throw America's full weight behind a new effort to bring peace to the Middle East.

Creation of a Palestinian state is possible within four years, President George Bush said yesterday, and promised to throw America's full weight behind a new effort to bring peace to the Middle East.

The President made his strong commitment after talks with Tony Blair at the White House at which the Prime Minister urged him to devote more energy to the peace process than he did in his first term.

President Bush's words were warmly welcomed by Mr Blair. But he stopped short of giving his immediate backing to two ideas proposed by the Prime Minister, the appointment of a new US envoy to the Middle East and calling a peace conference, possibly in London.

Although the two leaders agreed a working plan for their two governments, no timetable was made public. US officials said Washington first wanted to ensure the Palestinians elect a moderate, pragmatic leadership committed to democracy.

At a joint press conference at the White House, President Bush said Yasser Arafat's death had brought "a new opportunity to make progress towards a lasting peace". He ducked questions about putting pressure on Israel, but insisted its pullout from Gaza could lay the foundations for implementing the Middle East road-map and final-status negotiations about a "two-state solution".

The President said there was a "great chance" of creating a Palestinian state and pledged to "spend the capital of the United States on such a state" He added: "I would like to see it done in four years. I think it is possible." He did not rule out a peace conference but wanted to be sure it would "achieve something".

President Bush also bowed to pressure from Mr Blair to try to heal the wounds in Europe left by the Iraq war. He said he would "work to deepen trans-atlantic ties" and would visit Europe as soon as possible after his inauguration in January.

Mr Blair was the first foreign leader to meet the re-elected President. A one-to-one dinner on Thursday was followed yesterday by further talks and a working lunch. The President lavished praise on Mr Blair and angrily curled his lip when he was asked about criticism that the Prime Minister was his "poodle". But he appeared to acknowledge that their close relationship caused domestic difficulties for Mr Blair.

"He is a strong, capable man. I admire him a lot," President Bush said. "When he says something, he means it. He is a big thinker, he has got a clear vision. And when times get tough he doesn't wilt. I am a lucky person, a lucky President to be holding office at the same time as this man holds the Prime Ministerialship."

Mr Blair denied he was seeking a commitment on the Middle East as a "payback" for Britain's support for the US in Iraq. "We are an ally of the US because we believe in fighting this war on terrorism," he said.

In a defiant message to his domestic critics, Mr Blair said Britain's close relationship with the US would continue as long as he remained Prime Minister, not because it was in America's or the world's interests but because it was in Britain's.

The two leaders also trumpeted a shared vision to extend freedom and democracy through the world which echoed the views of neo-conservatives in America. Mr Blair was careful to say he was not talking about "interfering in every state around the world", but spoke of a shift since the 9/11 attacks. "What we are learning today is that there is no stability of any true, long-term kind without democratic rights for people to decide their government."

In public, the President and Prime Minister papered over their differences over the possible use of military might to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, a course opposed by Britain. They also discussed climate change, poverty in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Bush warned that violence in Iraq could worsen before the elections due in January but both leaders vowed to "finish the job". Mr Blair left Washington last night confident that he had secured a genuine commitment from the US on the Middle East and more optimistic the President would deliver after other false starts. He said there was "every possibility" of a just peace.

But the Prime Minister's critics were sceptical. Peter Kilfoyle, the former defence minister, said last night that the two leaders had produced only "a few warm words" on the Middle East and criticised their "evangelical tone". He added: "They see themselves as having a special visionary gift about the future of the planet and, frankly, most of us do not agree."

Flynt Leverett, President Bush's former chief Middle East expert on the National Security Council, said: "Blair has been snookered by George Bush before on this issue, and I suspect he'll be snookered again."

Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "History will judge harshly those who do not take the opportunity of a new political leadership of the Palestinians to press vigorously the case for a long-term settlement."