WASHINGTON - As Yasser Arafat was buried, President Bush raised hopes Friday for a Middle East peace and the creation of an independent Palestinian state within four years, suggesting decades of distrust and frustration could be altered by the change of Palestinian leadership.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, standing alongside Bush at a White House news conference, joined in pledging to mobilize global support for Palestinian elections and creating the conditions for a democratic state.
‘‘What we are saying is, we are going to work flat out to deliver this,’’ Blair said.
‘‘I’d like to see it done in four years,’’ said Bush, referring to the length of his second term. ‘‘I think it is possible. I think it is possible.’’ Bush originally set a goal of 2005 for a Palestinian state.
The leader of the Palestinians over four decades, Arafat was regarded by the United States as the primary obstacle to peace with Israel. Bush refused even to meet with him. Arafat’s death opens what many leaders believe is a crucial opportunity to break through anger and suspicion in the Middle East and lay the the groundwork for Israel and a Palestinian state to live side by side without bloodshed.
Hopes for any breakthrough, however, are tempered by a history of failure after moments of promise.
The agreement of the two world leaders could lend new impetus to Bush’s ‘‘two-state vision’’ for Israelis and Palestinians. Or it could prove to be another false start in a yearslong series of peace initiatives marred by fatal violence in the region.
‘‘It’s coming at a time when you have the end of an era, so it certainly marks a potential, but I know something about Middle East potentials,’’ said Dennis Ross, who served as special U.S. envoy to the Middle East under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. ‘‘What today reflects is a commitment. Now everyone will watch to see how you act on that commitment.’’
The Bush-Blair strategy is outlined in their general, fivepoint statement:
• It commits the leaders to the two-state vision of Israel and a Palestinian state;
• It promises to support Palestinians as they select a new president within 60 days and plan for election of democratic institutions;
• It pledges to ‘‘mobilize’’ international support for a stronger economy and security in the Palestinian state;
• It endorses Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza; and
• It maintains all this will ‘‘lay the basis for more rapid progress’’ on Bush’s ‘‘road map for peace,’’ which includes the dismantling of terrorist organizations.
The Bush administration, however, has stopped short of appointing a special envoy modeled after the peace brokers whom previous presidents have assigned to the task. Ross suggests it will take either an ambassador with those credentials or someone highly placed in the Bush administration to make the U.S. commitment clear.
With British general elections expected next year, Blair has struggled against criticism that he simply follows Bush’s orders as his ‘‘poodle.’’
Bush took the opportunity to announce he will visit Europe after the Jan. 20 inauguration. The trip is intended to repair relations with allies, upset by the Iraq war and what many perceive as Washington’s go-it-alone approach on foreign policy.
While pledging new efforts for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Bush refused to embrace Blair’s proposal for a conference on the Middle East early next year.