Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Friday, October 21, 2005
Bush met with P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Thursday, the second meeting between the two leaders since Abbas was elected head of the P.A. but the first since Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Abbas has been struggling since then to gain control of the Gaza Strip, where the radical Hamas organization is overwhelmingly popular with Palestinians.
Both the P.A. and Israel expressed satisfaction with Bush's comments following the meeting but both sides seemed to glean from the joint press conference what they wanted to hear.
"It was a very good and fruitful meeting," said Dr. Saeb Erekat, the P.A. minister in charge of negotiations.
Erekat said he was glad to hear Bush support the holding of Palestinian elections on time in January. "It will be a turning point in Palestinian political life," he said.
He said he also appreciated Bush's support for a continuation of the road map process and a two-state solution and his call on the Israeli government to stop settlement activity.
But Erekat said that Abbas had asked Bush to set a timeline for the implementation of the road map. "President Bush declined," he said.
The P.A. has long pushed for a timeline for the implementation of the road map plan, which foresees the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
According to the original road map, engineered by the Quartet - the U.S., European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- a Palestinian state should have been established two years ago; and by the end of this year, there should be a permanent settlement between Israel and the P.A. on contentious issues such as Jerusalem and refugees.
But the process never got off the ground because violence and terrorism were never halted, as required in the first phase of the road map.
In a joint press conference following the meeting between Bush and Abbas, Bush said he did not know when a Palestinian state would be established.
"I believe that two democratic states living side by side in peace is possible. I can't tell you when it's going to happen; it's happening," Bush said.
"There will be moments of progress and there will be moments of setback," Bush added, saying "the key is to keep moving forward, is to have partners in peace to move forward," he said.
Bush said that the U.S. would not force the two sides to make decisions so he didn't know if a Palestinian state would be established before he leaves office in three years.
"I'd like to see two states. And if it happens before I get out of office, I'll be there to witness the ceremony...and if it doesn't, we will work hard to lay that foundation so that the process becomes irreversible," he said.
Bush did not mention Hamas by name but said that "the way forward" must begin with the P.A. "confronting the threat that armed gangs" pose to a Palestinian state and to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The State Department later clarified that Hamas is still on its list of terrorist organizations.
Erekat said Abbas addressed concerns about Hamas when he said the P.A. is committed to "one authority, one law, one legal gun" -- a reference to the P.A.'s commitment to be the only armed entity.
Eye to eye
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office declined to comment on the remarks made by Bush and Abbas. But Lior Ben-Dor a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Israel was satisfied with Bush's comments because Israel sees "eye to eye" with the U.S. regarding Hamas.
Bush apparently did not demand that Abbas bar Hamas from upcoming elections.
Israel's policy is to prevent Hamas from participating in elections "as long as the movement is calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, not beside Israel but on the debris of Israel," said Ben-Dor.
"Israel considers Mahmoud Abbas president of the Palestinian Authority and as a partner and this is why we really wish that he would succeed in establishing law and order in the territories," said Ben-Dor.
Israel knows that Abbas understands the importance of fighting against weapons held by militant groups because the day after they are directed against Israel, they could be used against him, said Ben-Dor.
The question is what will he do? Abbas has taken some steps to establish law and order but Israel wants to see more, said Ben-Dor.
As for Israel's security fence and the settlements in the West Bank, Ben-Dor said Israel agrees with Bush.
Bush said that Israel needed to work to "improve the daily lives of Palestinians" and not "undertake any activity that contravenes its road map obligations or prejudices the final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem."
"This means that Israel must remove unauthorized posts and stop settlement expansion. It also means that the barrier now being built to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks must be a security barrier, rather than a political barrier. Israeli leaders must take into account the impact the security barrier has on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities," he said.
"[The barrier] is being built for security purposes. [We are not] aiming to draw final borders," he said.
"Israel has not built any new settlements," said Ben-Dor. It is important to distinguish between the three big settlement blocs, which Israel intends to keep in any future agreement with the Palestinians, and isolated settlements, he said.
Israel believes it received a promised from Bush last year that large settlement blocs would be included inside Israel in a final agreement.
Bush gave Israel a letter stating that the U.S. would strongly consider Israel's position on the large settlement blocs in the final status talks.
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