US President George W. Bush said on Saturday he remained confident a deal on Palestinian statehood could be achieved before he leaves office, as he sought to ease Arab doubts about his commitment to even-handed peacemaking.
In the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for the final stop of his Middle East tour, Bush faces growing skepticism over his chances of securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office in January.
"It breaks my heart to see the vast potential of the Palestinian people, really, wasted," Bush said at the side of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "It would be an opportunity to end the suffering that takes place in the Palestinian territories."
Bush and Abbas met for nearly an hour before speaking briefly to reporters. They then strolled back inside, holding hands as they walked slowly down a bouganveilla-lined path, for a private dinner. Abbas glowingly praised Bush's dedication to the talks, launched between the two sides in November for the first time in seven years, and the goal of state defined for Palestinians by the end of Bush's term.
"We know very well that you personally, as well as your administration, are committed to reach peace before the end of 2008," Abbas said. ''We are working very seriously and very aggressively with the hope that we will be able to achieve this objective.''
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a private meeting with Bush, sought reassurances that the US president was firmly committed to the peace process and would work hard toward the goal of a Palestinian state.
"In my speech tomorrow I'll make it clear that I believe that we can get a state defined by the end of my presidency, and we'll work hard to achieve that objective," said Bush, who is due to address the World Economic Forum on Sunday.
Standing next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with their backs to the Red Sea, Bush sought to ease Arab concerns that Palestinians were slighted during his three-day visit to Jerusalem.
Bush said he had spoken with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials in Jerusalem about his Middle East peace goals, and will hold discussions with Abbas later on Saturday.
"Every one of these meetings helps advance the process," Bush said.
"Every one of these meetings helps us inch toward the goal of getting a state defined with borders and the refugee issue, as well as security concerns defined by the end of my presidency," he said. "And I believe we can do that, and I know it's going to be important for the peace in the Middle East."
Bush and Abbas take a mid-day stroll. (Photo: AFP)
The other topic that dominated the talks, Bush said, was the recent turmoil in Lebanon, perceived by the United States and many in the Sunni Arab world as a demonstration of Shiite-controlled Iran's quest for more influence in the region.
Bush said he and Abbas agreed on their concern about "radical elements undermining" the US-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
Hizbullah overran Beirut neighborhoods last week in protest of measures aimed at the group by Siniora's government, a display of power that shocked and concerned the West. "This is a defining moment," he said. "It is a moment that requires us to stand strongly with the Siniora government and to support the Siniora government."
On the way from the airport, Bush's motorcade passed a "peacemakers" mural on the side of the road, a reminder of past efforts on Middle East diplomacy by his predecessors.
Palestinians outraged over Bush's rhetoricPalestinians were dismayed that Bush, in his speech to Israel's parliament on Thursday, made only one reference to their aspirations for a state of their own and did not use the occasion to press Israelis to make compromises.
Bush hailed Israel as a "homeland for the chosen people" and pledged that Israelis could forever count on American support against enemies like Hamas and Iran.
Bush's arrival in Egypt was met with stinging criticism by the country's state-owned newspapers, which are run by government-appointed managers. "Bush aims to do nothing but appease Israel," wrote Mursi Atallah, the publisher of Al-Ahram, the flagship daily of the state-owned press.
Abbas will make his case for Bush to put more pressure on Israel, but he has little leverage and is weak at home, governing only in the West Bank while Hamas controls Gaza.
"He should have told the Israelis no one can be free at the expense of others," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "He missed this opportunity and we are disappointed."
AP and Reuters contributed to this article.