US President George W. Bush said on Monday that he could not envisage the Middle East evolving "without a Palestinian state that's free and democratic." Bush, who flies to Israel on Tuesday, told The Jerusalem Post that he remains convinced that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace. And he went on to say, at a briefing with the Post and three other Israeli journalists in the Oval Office, that he was still convinced that an accord on Palestinian statehood was attainable this year. He noted that during his presidency he had witnessed "the emergence of thought in Israel that the only way to exist in the long-term is for there to be a Palestinian state. And it's a powerful idea. I believe in powerful ideas. I believe that with US help, the negotiators can come up with the definition of a state." From his own point of view, the president said, "All I've tried to do is wade in and add some legitimacy to the two-state solution. I've been the first president to articulate it. To me it's the only solution. I just don't see how the Middle East evolves without a Palestinian state that's free and democratic." He stressed that no such Palestinian state would come into existence "until certain obligations are met. But it's the definition itself which becomes a powerful engine for the marginalization of people who murder innocents to achieve their objectives," he said. Bush, who was in notably good spirits following the wedding of his daughter Jenna at his Texas ranch at the weekend, also took pains to praise Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as "an honest guy." He said Olmert was easy to talk to and a strategic thinker. Nonetheless, when asked about the latest investigation faced by Olmert, and the possible impact on his efforts to achieve a peace agreement, Bush stressed that these were government processes and observed that the likes of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were also intimately involved. Unusually for the White House, Monday's interview took place in the intimacy of the Oval Office rather than the larger Roosevelt Room next door. The president was relaxed and welcoming, and punctuated his comments with expansive gestures, stretching his hands wide, or leaning forward to make key points. Key advisers were also in the room, including National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. The president described Iran as "the biggest long-term threat to peace in the Middle East" and as "an incredibly negative regime." But the US, he said, was "pushing back hard" and all options remained on the table for trying to thwart Iran's nuclear drive. He was not prepared to say, however, that he was confident of blocking that nuclear program before he left office. "We take [seriously] this issue of [Iran] getting the technology, the know-how on how to develop a nuclear weapon," he said. "All options are on the table. Of course you want to try to solve this problem diplomatically." He also noted that the Iranian connection to Syria "is very troubling." Asked whether he wanted to block an Israeli-Syrian dialogue, he said he had never demanded that Israel abstain from a dialogue with Damascus but made plain the United States' own opposition to warming ties with Syria so long as Damascus was sponsoring terrorism. Israeli politicians, he said, "have got to come up with their own vision of security. And I have never told Olmert one thing or another about what to do about his security. That's not what friends do. He's made the decision that he made [to try to explore the possibility of progress with Syria]. Of all the people who understand the existential threat that the Iranians pose, it's the Israelis." Asked how he was seeking to tackle the current instability in Lebanon, the president said he was backing Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. "He's a good guy. He's tough and he's in a really tough situation. This is again a case of people receiving outside funds to destabilize democracies." Overall, indeed, Bush said the Middle East, and the struggle against extremism, was his administration's key foreign policy priority. "It's the same struggle in Iraq and it's the same struggle in Lebanon. The Middle East is where the great ideological conflict is being played out. And an effective Bush foreign policy is to put the focus of the United States squarely in the middle of the Middle East." Bush stressed that although the US wields considerable influence, it can not impose peace on Israel and the Palestinians. Therefore he was coming to Israel this week, he said, to encourage rather than demand progress. "The vision of a state is such a powerful notion, such an important notion for Israel's very existence, that I do believe that we have a chance to get something defined," he said. "So what I'll be doing is encouraging people to see if they can't reach agreement on what the borders of a state will look like, for example." If that were achieved, he said, then issues such as the settlement issue could be dealt with "in much more concrete terms." The president spoke off-the-record at some length about the fundamental moral principles that underpin his presidential philosophy. He said he would elaborate on that thinking in his Knesset speech this week. "There's no better place to talk about democracy, and the history of democracy, and the challenge of democracy in dealing with existential threats and terrorism and state sponsored terrorists than in the Knesset," he said. "I hope at the end of the [Knesset] speech, people will say, 'If vision accounts for anything, he has got a vision of how to deal with the extremists and radicals.'" Bush insisted he was not looking to his legacy. "I'm not running for the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm just trying to be a guy to use the influence of the United States to move the process along," he said. But he added that "I hope that history will say that this is a guy who clearly saw the world the way it is. I can assure you that al-Qaida, Hamas and Hizbullah don't think about the comforts of life. They are driven. And the fundamental challenge facing this world is, well, countries like the United States, be prepared to continue to stay in the lead." Concluding the conversation, the president observed, "I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office. But one of [those legacies] has got to be, he clearly saw the threat and he did something about it."