John King: Bush talks of 'hopeful direction' in Mideast
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (CNN) -- At a summit Tuesday in Egypt, President Bush told top Arab leaders that Israel "must deal with the settlements" and the Palestinians must not allow "a few terrorists" to thwart Middle East peace.
The leaders of four Arab nations and the new Palestinian prime minister also asserted their opposition to terror and support for the Middle East "road map."
From Sharm el-Sheikh, CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King talked to CNN Anchor Bill Hemmer about developments at the summit.
HEMMER: John, fill us in on more about what was said not just publicly but also behind the scenes there, as again we move closer to that summit [Wednesday] in Jordan.
KING: It is just one meeting, and we must be careful. Often one step forward in the Middle East [is] followed by bombings, tragedy and killings and two to three steps in the reverse direction.
But President Bush [is] talking of what he called the "hopeful direction" for the entire region right now, and the president is certainly happy with what he is hearing in this statement from the Arab leaders.
You heard [Egyptian] President [Hosni] Mubarak saying that all of these Arab leaders gathered here reject a culture of extremism and violence. Mr. Bush believes that is critical because Hamas, Hezbollah [and] other groups that have been blamed for attacks on Israel in the past often get financial, moral and political support elsewhere in the Arab world.
The president believes it is critical that the leaders at the table with him crack down in a very determined way on that financing.
President Mubarak also said that this meeting was in the tradition of many past summits and many other peace plans. He mentioned one specifically, the Saudi plan of Crown Prince Abdullah.
That plan at the end of the road says if there is an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, then Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arab world would be prepared to finally recognize Israel's right to exist and to have normal diplomatic relations.
That is a key goal of this president of the United States -- to create a climate for peace -- so that when Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon has to make tough decisions, he can tell his people in Israel if we make these tough choices we will have a lasting peace, not only with the Palestinians but recognition and economic trade and the like across the entire Arab world.
So the president leaves here hopeful, believing that he has won, at least initially, the strong backing of these key Arab leaders. Mr. Bush [is] trying to put away any doubts that he will personally dedicate the time and energy to move this process forward.
We look now, Bill, to what happens at the next stop, Round Two [Wednesday] at that three-way summit [in Aqaba, Jordan].
What the president wants most of all is a strong statement from Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, promising to crack down on terror, and a strong statement from the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, saying that he will back away from settlements, dismantle settlements immediately.
Mr. Bush laid out the challenge to Prime Minister Abbas in the meeting earlier [Tuesday] morning. In the private meeting, Mr. Bush had just met Mahmoud Abbas for the first time, and he turned to him and he said, "You, sir, have a responsibility."
And the president said he believes Mr. Abbas would assume that responsibility and that the United States would help him, but he said it was critical that a few people, a few terrorists, a few killers, the president called them, not derail the hopes for peace, hopes that once again seem to have a bit of a momentum after these sessions.
HEMMER: John, go back to your previous answer talking about the Arab world. What is the reaction there when you hear [words such as] these from the president of the United States? "When I say something, I mean it. The world needs to have a Palestinian state that is free and at peace."
What is the measured impact when those words come from a sitting president right now in the region for this very reason, peace in that area?
KING: Well, Mr. Bush believes that he has an opening here, in part because of the war in Iraq, in part because he said he would deal with Saddam Hussein and he did. He believes that his word is now trusted here.
The one bit of skepticism comes on whether he will push the prime minister of Israel [when] dealing not only with the trouble that might cause in Israel, but the political problems it could cause domestically in the United States.
Mr. Bush is trying to make the case that I said -- "I meant what I said when it came to Iraq, and I mean what I say now" -- and he bluntly said [Tuesday] morning that Israel must deal with the settlements.
The president [is] trying to establish with these Arab leaders [that] he is prepared to make the tough decisions, he is prepared to expend political capital.
That is part of the president's effort to convince these leaders that they must now do the same.
It will cause them some trouble at home, just as it might cause some trouble at home for President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon in the days, weeks and months [ahead]. And we should stress -- this will take months at a minimum to come.