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Last Updated: Friday, 12 November, 2004, 23:47 GMT
Positive notes but few pledges
By Rob Watson
BBC correspondent in Washington

Palestinians at a ceremony for Arafat in Bulgaria
As Palestinians mourned Arafat, Bush and Blair met in Washington
It was a strange contrast.

In Ramallah on the West Bank, Yasser Arafat was being laid to rest amid scenes of chaos.

Thousands of miles of away on a quiet rain-sodden Friday in Washington DC, President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were huddling in the Oval Office of the White House to plan the next steps in the wake of his death.

The meeting was billed as Mr Blair's chance to prod President Bush into closer involvement in the Middle East peace process.

So in the magnificent East Room of the White House the press gathered to await the outcome and for their opportunity to question the two leaders.

US 'ready to help'

In a nutshell, the president emerged to say, the ball was in the Palestinians' court.

If they showed they were truly committed to peace the US and everyone else would help them.

In the short term, he said, the US was ready to assist with elections and to "mobilise the international community to help revive the Palestinian economy".

Sounding the kind of positive note that must have been music to Mr Blair's ears, the president said there was a great chance to establish a Palestinian state and that he would use his second term "to spend the capital of the United States on such a state".

Beyond that, though, he was short on the details of any further US diplomacy.

Non-committal

Asked about whether he would support an international peace conference he said yes, but only if it would produce something.

He was similarly non-committal on the idea of a special US envoy.

Standing by his side, Mr Blair also stressed the need for the Palestinians to go down the path of democracy if they wanted a state, but placed greater emphasis on what was needed to help them get there.

So what does it all mean?

The dreaded answer is that it is probably still too early to say.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, and US President George Bush
Blair gained a public commitment to a peace process from Bush
The Bush administration clearly seems to take the view that the death of Mr Arafat does create at least the possibility of a new beginning in the Middle East peace process.

But it is equally clear that the US wants to wait and see what kind of leadership emerges in his place.

Privately, US officials say they genuinely believe there is a good chance the Palestinians will opt for peace and reform though it will not be easy.

So Mr Blair goes home having succeeded in getting the president to make a very public commitment to the cause of Middle East peace, though a commitment he can easily walk away from if the Palestinians fail to meet the conditions he has laid out.




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