WASHINGTON -- President Bush held a private 30-minute meeting in the Oval Office with a group of Palestinian officials last week, officials confirmed yesterday. The impetus for the rare session was undersecretary of state and presidential confidante Karen Hughes, who had received complaints about the administration's Palestinian policy during her recent tour of the Middle East.
Hughes, who is charged with burnishing the US image, mentioned the Palestinian officials during a lunch with Bush on Oct. 5, noting they were in town preparing for the White House visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Oct. 20. It's a measure of Hughes's stature and direct access that a diplomat at her level can command a lunch with the president -- and also attract the attendance of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
Within minutes, the flabbergasted Palestinian officials -- who had expected to meet only with an assistant secretary of state at Foggy Bottom -- were told to come to the White House and meet with the president.
''I was absolutely surprised," said Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to Abbas. ''They said, 'The president wants to see you,' and I said, 'The president of what?' "
The unannounced meeting was first reported yesterday by Bloomberg News.
Ordinarily, such a presidential session would take weeks of discussion and dozens of e-mails to lock into place. Edward G. Abington Jr., a former State Department official who advises the Palestinian Authority, said he had never seen something so unscripted.
''I chalk it up to her," he said, referring to Hughes. ''I think it's a reflection of how Hughes had gotten hammered over the Palestinian issue."
During Hughes's trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, she told reporters she was surprised Bush had not received more credit for his efforts on establishing a Palestinian state. At almost every public forum, Hughes highlighted Bush's support for Palestinian statehood as a way of rebutting the perception that the administration leaned toward Israel on key issues needed for a peace deal.
But Arabs have contended that Bush's support for statehood has been merely words. ''The slogan of a Palestinian state is not enough," said Randa Siniora, general director of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group in Ramallah, West Bank. ''These words have to be translated into real deeds."
Buttu said Bush was very reassuring to the Palestinian delegation, which included Rafiq Husseini, Abbas's chief of staff, and Ghaith Omari, an Abbas political adviser.
Buttu described Abbas as a strong leader who makes tough decisions, and said he will also make tough decisions as the Palestinians seek to build a nation.
When the Palestinians contended that Israeli settlement expansion might make a state impossible to achieve, Buttu said Bush replied: ''Don't worry. I have some political sway with Israel and will use it if need be."
According to Buttu, Bush also told the Palestinians not to worry about the possibility that the Gaza Strip -- recently vacated by Israel -- will remain closed to the outside world by Israeli military roadblocks and restrictive border crossings.
Laura Bush also dropped in on the meeting.
Frederick L. Jones II, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on the specifics of the meeting, but said it included a discussion of democracy, ending terrorism, and protecting human rights.
He said there was no effort to keep the meeting a secret, but not every presidential meeting is disclosed.