WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that he has never been more confident of peace between Israel and the Palestinians but ''old feuds aren't settled easily" and it may not happen before he leaves office in 2009.
''It takes a while," Bush said as he lauded Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, his aspirations for a Palestinian state, and his plans for legislative elections in January. ''We will work hard to lay that foundation so that the process becomes irreversible," the president said.
In June 2002, Bush set 2005 as his goal for Palestinian statehood.
At a joint news conference after an hour-long meeting in the Oval Office, Bush cautioned the Palestinian leader that ''the way forward is confronting the threat armed gangs present to creation of a democratic Palestine."
But Bush did not directly question Abbas's intention to permit political participation by Hamas and other Palestinian groups that have carried out terror attacks against Israelis. Nor did Bush publicly urge Abbas to screen out extremists in those groups from participating, a proposal discussed with other Palestinian officials before Abbas arrived in Washington for their first White House meeting since May.
In Jerusalem, Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said he was not concerned. Shoval said he was confident Bush had told Abbas privately that Hamas should not play a role in the January elections.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US view remains that Hamas is a terrorist organization. But he added, ''It is also the case that how the Palestinian political process unfolds and evolves is a question for the Palestinian people."
Offering assurances on that front, Saeb Erekat, senior Palestinian negotiator, said on Israel's Channel 2 TV that ''no one can get their political goals through the means of force."
In a harsh reaction, meanwhile, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed Bush's remarks in support of Palestinian statehood.
''This statement and this pledge to establish a state added nothing new for us," he said in Gaza City. ''It's an old promise without any credit, while we are witnessing unlimited support for the [Israeli] occupation."
At their news conference, Bush was unqualified in his praise of Abbas as ''a man devoted to peace and to his people's aspiration for a state of their own."
''Today the Palestinian people are closer to realizing their aspirations," Bush said.
Supporting Abbas, Bush urged Israel to stop constructing settlements on the West Bank. He assured Abbas he shared his vision of two states living side by side in peace and security.
''Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its roadmap obligations," Bush said, referring to a blueprint for peacemaking approved by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.
Without elaboration, Bush said Israel would be ''held to account" for any actions that hamper peacemaking or burden the lives of Palestinians.
But Bush said he was a ''heck of a lot more confident" of peace prospects than when he first took office five years ago. Both Abbas and Sharon are committed to making peace, he said.
Abbas, in response, insisted that Israel lift curbs on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, saying the restrictions had caused the Palestinians ''hardship and humiliation."
The Palestinian leader also criticized Israel's security barrier, particularly its location in Jerusalem, where the Palestinians intended to establish the capital of their state.
He assured Bush that election of a Palestinian legislature in January would establish one law to govern the area.