The two leaders spoke after wartime meeting to discuss the war in Iraq and other international issues.
“It’s a hopeful time in the Middle East as far as I’m concerned. I believe we can make substantial progress. I’m pleased with the new leader of the Palestinian Authority. I look forward to him finally putting his cabinet in place so we can release the roadmap,” Mr. Bush said.
The prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, was named by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in early March. He is in the process of appointing a cabinet, which will serve as the executive authority of a new Palestinian government.
The 67-year-old Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is a longtime member of the Palestinian leadership, but is generally considered more moderate and less controversial than Arafat.
“Mr. Abbas was a key figure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the 1990’s, and is seen as a tough, pragmatic negotiator. He is Mr. Arafat’s deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the two men have been close allies since the 1960’s, though they have also had bitter arguments over the years. Mr. Abbas has always preferred to operate behind the scenes, in contrast to Mr. Arafat, who enjoys the limelight,” the New York Times reported on March 20.
Mediators of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, including the United States and Britain, have called on Arafat to take a less active role in the day-to-day governing of Palestinian areas.
President Bush said Britain and the United States are committed to facilitating a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict and the establishment of a two-state system in the region.
“Our governments are working to help bring about a settlement in the Middle East that protects the rights of Israelis and Palestinians, that promotes the peace, that promotes security, that promotes human dignity,” said Mr. Bush.
Abbas, however, has encountered some opposition within the Palestinian authority as he tries to organize his government. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Arafat wants Abbas to replace no more than three or four members of a current cabinet serving under Arafat, while Abbas has sought wider leadership changes.
A main area of contention is the position of interior minister, who oversees Palestinian security forces.
“Arafat’s Fatah movement, of which Abbas is a senior member, wants to keep on the current minister, Hani al-Hassan, who has been on the job for six months, so far without any evidence of real change,” the AP reported.
Abbas would reportedly prefer Mohammed Dahlan, the former security official for Gaza, and the apparent favorite of the United States and Europe, who believe Dahlan would be more effective at controlling militant groups responsible for attacks on Israeli civilians.
Abbas has made no real progress to date in getting commitments from the militant groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, to stop terror attacks.
The new prime minister has until Thursday to name a cabinet or exercise his option of a two-week extension.