President Bush gave visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the full White House treatment — an hour-long Oval Office sit-down, a joint Rose Garden press conference with his foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in attendance, and a visit with Vice President Cheney. He even closed a few streets for Abbas' motorcade.
In his opening remarks, Bush noted that this was Abbas' second White House visit this year, observed that the Palestinian leader was democratically elected and called him a "man of peace."
It was intended to underscore Abbas' distinctions from his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who was none of the above. Arafat visited the Clinton White House 24 times — more, it is said, than any other foreign leader. But Bush would have nothing to do with him. After Clinton's dealings with the slippery Arafat, Bush decided that agreement with him was impossible. Administration underlings handled what few dealings there were. The wisdom of Bush's course was confirmed when Arafat made only a few token, insincere gestures at stopping terrorism against Israeli civilians. Arafat died isolated and powerless.
Abbas reviewed the seemingly unchanging litany of obstacles in the road map to a two-state solution in the Mideast. And Bush repeated his usual call for both sides to adhere to the road map. But it was not all boilerplate. Bush indicated that he was willing to give Abbas considerably more leeway than the Israelis would like in drawing Hamas and other extremist groups into the political process by letting them field candidates in January's elections.
His VIP treatment of Abbas reflected Bush's confidence in the process. Indeed, he said, "I'm a heck of a lot more confident today than I was when I first came into office." There has been "remarkable progress." The unfortunate verbal echoes of his support for his hapless FEMA director aside, let us hope that confidence is justified.