By BILL STRAUB
Scripps Howard News Service
May 27, 2005
Standing next to Abbas in the Rose Garden, Bush told the successor to the late Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority that he has "made a new start on a difficult journey, requiring courage and leadership each day, and we will take that journey together."
Bush pledged $50 million to assist in the development of new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza - Israeli-controlled territory expected to be ceded to the authority sometime this summer. He reiterated American support for the two-state approach to Middle East affairs and offered confidence in Abbas' ability to confront terrorists.
Abbas - in his first official visit to the White House, coming after Bush's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Crawford, Texas, last month - said the Palestinians are "extending our hands to the Israeli people in good intention," adding that the two sides "should end this conflict before it is too late."
Abbas noted that efforts undertaken by the authority over the past few months have resulted in the lowest level of violence in four years, which, he said, "reopened the window of hope for progress toward peace."
The cordial session offered further evidence that the White House believes conferring with Abbas, considered a moderate by Palestinian standards, is substantially preferable to dealing with Arafat, who was persona non grata within the administration.
Bush is hoping to push the two sides along on what has been tagged "the road map" - a step-by-step plan to bring peace to the Middle East and establish a Palestinian state next to Israel. Progress has been slowed by Sharon's refusal to engage in talks with Abbas while violence continues. But Israel is expected to turn over Gaza and a portion of the West Bank this summer.
The meeting also was intended as a boost for Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's first democratically elected leader. Abbas could face a strong challenge in upcoming elections from Hamas, which Bush on Thursday termed "a terrorist group."
Bush called on Israel to push toward peace by removing unauthorized outposts and calling a halt to settlement expansion.
"Israel must continue to take steps toward a peaceful future and work with the Palestinian leadership to improve the daily lives of Palestinians, especially their humanitarian situation," Bush said. "Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes road-map obligations or prejudice final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem."
Despite the amiable atmosphere, Bush and Abbas were not in full agreement. Bush refused to call on Israel to end construction of a security fence, although he said the barrier "must be a security, rather than political, barrier" and take into account "its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities."
Abbas criticized the fence and said Israel needs to halt settlement activity. He said the settlements contribute "to the feeling of frustration and despair and the loss of hope. Stopping this is one of the requirements of the road map. Time is becoming our greatest enemy."
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