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Bush gets backing of Arab leaders

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SHARM El SHEIK, Egypt — With the backing of key Arab leaders, President Bush launched his most ambitious Middle East peace mission Tuesday on the eve of his trip to Jordan. The president vowed to seek a "permanent reconciliation" between Arabs and Israelis "no matter how difficult it is."

Bush will attend a second summit today, meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Bush said his goal is a secure Israel free of the threat of terror attacks and an independent Palestinian state no longer under the thumb of Israeli occupation.

In a largely unscripted Mideast summit at Sharm El Sheik, an Egyptian seaside resort, Arab leaders pledged Tuesday to choke off funding to terrorist groups and to help Abbas build a democratic state.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who the Bush administration considers untrustworthy, was not invited to the summit. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Arafat against being a "spoiler" in the peace process.

In an unusual break from the typical formality of such gatherings, senior advisers were excluded as Bush and the Arab leaders spoke privately for 90 minutes, with only their translators present.

While aides to the leaders cautioned that many obstacles remain, there was general agreement that progress had been made on the U.S.-initiated "road map" to peace in the Middle East. It calls for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence and creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

"I'm the kind of person who, when I say something, I mean it," Bush said in remarks during Tuesday's meeting with Abbas and other Arab leaders.

"I mean that the world needs to have a Palestinian state that is free and at peace," said Bush. "I believe now is the time to work to achieve the vision."

In return, Palestinians and their Arab backers must put an end to suicide attacks and other militant actions against Israelis, said Bush. He said efforts toward creating a Palestinian state would be tied directly to results in ending such violence.

"All progress towards peace requires the rejection of terror," Bush said, following the meeting with Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Jordan's King Abdullah II and King Hamad of Bahrain.

"Terror threatens my nation," said Bush. "Terror threatens Arab states. Terror threatens the state of Israel. Terror threatens the emergence of a Palestinian state. Terror must be opposed, and it must be defeated."

A senior official of the Palestinian militant group Hamas said Tuesday the group would stop attacking Israelis if it had guarantees that Israeli forces would gradually withdraw from Palestinian territory. In an interview with ABC's "Nightline" program, Ismail Abu Shanab said the United States should give Palestinians assurances about the outcome of the peace initiative.

When Bush meets today with Sharon and Abbas at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, it will be the first time he has personally mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But he warned Tuesday that peace will require "hard and heroic decisions" from both leaders.

"Israel must make sure there's a continuous territory that the Palestinians can call home," Bush told the Arab leaders. The White House press office later issued a rare footnote in an official transcript, saying that Bush had meant to use the word "contiguous" instead of the diplomatically less precise "continuous."

Bush's statement was a rejection of the idea of dispersed Palestinian cantons that were part of a U.S.-brokered Israeli peace offer the Palestinians refused nearly three years ago.

Bush also said Israel "must deal with" scores of Jewish settlements dotting parts of the West Bank and Gaza. The settlements are abhorred by Palestinians, who regard them as illicit pockets of Israeli control.

Sharon is said to be prepared to publicly accept the eventual creation of a Palestinian state while Abbas is said to be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist as a neighbor.

Settlements, territory and terror are but a few of the persistent disputes at the heart of half a century of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Bloodshed has further embittered the two foes in the 2 1/2 years since the peace process stalled. Since then, more than 2,550 Palestinians and more than 780 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.

In throwing himself into the middle of the fray, Bush has taken on a daunting task.

"It's the beginning of a long process, and a tough process," Bush told the Arab leaders. "But, no matter how difficult it is, you have my commitment that I will expend the energy and effort necessary to move the process forward."

Despite the challenges, Bush called this "a moment of promise" in the region, in part due to the recent U.S. military victory in Iraq. Bush also cited the new Palestinian leadership, under Abbas, whom Bush regards as a far more reliable partner than the aging Arafat.

"We seek true peace," Bush said, "not just a pause between more wars and intifadas (uprisings) but a permanent reconciliation among the peoples of the Middle East."

Speaking for the group after Tuesday's meeting, Mubarak pledged to fight "the scourge of terrorism" and endorsed Bush's approach to peace.

"This vision means that, alongside the existing state of Israel, a new state for the Palestinians will emerge," Mubarak said. "We welcome the road map rising from this vision."

Mubarak underscored Arab backing for the peace process with a strongly worded pledge to help Abbas crack down on Islamic militant groups. His statement appeared to address a long-standing practice among some Arabs of condemning terrorism in general while supporting certain groups waging violence on behalf of the Palestinian cause.

Mubarak went on to pledge Arab support for U.S.-backed efforts to replace the authority of Arafat, longtime head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, with a new government led and shaped by Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazan.

Mubarak also said future Arab financial support to Palestinians — which is substantial and crucial — would be channeled through the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas.

Meeting with reporters later, a senior Saudi official said Arabs support Bush in this effort, largely because they believe he is devoted to seeing it to its conclusion.

"His statement dispelled any idea he is not serious," said the Saudi. "I hope this laying of the groundwork for peace that started in Sharm el-Sheik will continue in Aqaba tomorrow. It is there that the action really is. It is there that the commitment really means something."

Bob Deans may be e-mailed at: bobdeans@coxnews.com