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Bush embraces Abbas as courageous reformer
Updated: 2005-05-27 09:00

US President Bush embraced Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday as a courageous democratic reformer and bolstered his standing at home with $50 million in assistance to improve the quality of life in Gaza.

Abbas, the first top Palestinian leader to visit the White House during Bush's presidency, said Palestinians were "in dire need to have freedom" from Israeli control and that the need for U.S. help was urgent. He spoke just weeks before scheduled parliamentary elections in which his supporters are vying against the militant group Hamas.

"Time is becoming our greatest enemy," Abbas said toward the end of a three-day visit during which he projected himself as the peaceful successor to Yasser Arafat and depicted the Palestinians as long suffering at the hands of Israel. Arafat, who died last November, was never invited to the White House by Bush.

Bush embraces Abbas as courageous reformer
U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) in the Oval Office of the White House, May 26, 2005.[Reuters]
Laying claim to all the land the Arabs lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, including east Jerusalem, Abbas said, "It is time for our people, after many decades of suffering and dispossessions, to enjoy living in freedom on their own land."

The boundaries of a future Palestinian state should be those that existed before the 1967 war, he said, meaning before Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

At a joint news conference in the sunlit Rose Garden, Bush lent a measure of support to the Palestinians' territorial demands. He said Israel needed Palestinian consent to retain land the Arabs lost 38 years ago.

Any changes Israel made in expanding its boundaries since the end of the 1948 war for independence "must be mutually agreed to," Bush said. And he said Israel must remove illegal makeshift outposts from the West Bank and stop expanding Jewish settlements.

Bush embraces Abbas as courageous reformer
US President Bush and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hold a joint news conference,Thursday, May 26, 2005, in the Rose Garden at the White House. [AP]
Notably, the president did not repeat the support he voiced last year during a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for Israel retaining large settlements on the West Bank near Jerusalem.

Later, a senior administration official who refused to be identified said Bush stood by past statements supporting Israel's claims to the settlements. And while Abbas called for prompt negotiations with Israel on an overall peace accord, the official said the administration believes the parties were not ready and could risk a breakdown if they moved too quickly.

Despite the display of comity, Bush and Abbas differed on the barrier Israel is constructing to screen out terrorists.

Abbas said, "There is no justification for the wall and it is illegitimate."

Bush said the barrier was part of an Israeli security effort and it "must be a security rather than a political barrier."

Israeli officials attribute a sharp decline in terror attacks to the barrier.

Overall, the atmosphere at the White House was warm and in sharp contrast to the Bush administration's appraisal of Arafat as corrupt and a supporter of attacks on Israel.

Asked whether Abbas had moved aggressively to dismantle terror groups in Palestinian-held areas, Bush said he knew he leader was committed to democracy and was elected on a peace platform.

"You cannot have a democracy based upon rule of law if you have armed bands of people who will use their weapons to try to achieve a political outcome," Bush said.

Still, he did not directly call on Abbas to dismantle Palestinian terror groups, though he reaffirmed that Hamas fit that description as far as he was concerned.

Bush said he would send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East to talk to Israeli and Palestinian leaders before the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza this summer. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said she probably would go in mid-June.

In a show of support, Bush said he would provide $50 million to the Palestinian Authority, which Abbas heads. The money is to be used for new housing in Gaza, which Sharon plans to evacuate this summer.

To get around Arafat, all but $20 million in U.S. aid for the Palestinians over the past decade has been channeled to third parties, not the Palestinian Authority.

"These funds will be used to improve the quality of life of the Palestinians living in Gaza," the president said.

Boucher said the $50 million would come out of $200 million in U.S. aid already approved by Congress for the current year.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Appropriations committee, said Abbas was engaged in a struggle with Hamas for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people and needed "to bring real results to his people."

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, said in Ramallah the $50 million was a "modest beginning" and she was "sure the United States is capable of giving greater support not only to Gaza but also for the West Bank."

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