Bush Praises Abbas, Has Demands on Israel, Ducks Hard Questions

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, seemingly alarmed by the reports emanating from Thursday's White House meeting, says there's nothing new in the White House commitments to Abu Mazen.

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, | updated: 10:53

Olmert told Army Radio Friday morning that the reports of firm White House promises to the Palestinian Authority (PA) are exaggerated. He did not elaborate, however, saying the radio is not the forum to speculate about the position of US President George W. Bush and his administration.

Olmert is an adamant proponent of the disengagement/expulsion plan, and was the first senior official to hint at, and then later openly support, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evict Gaza and northern Shomron residents and leave their lands to the Arabs.

Bush and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) met yesterday in the White House. The meeting was described as warm, and Bush effusively praised Abbas while declining to make public demands upon him.

"I take great faith in not only his [Abbas'] personal character, but the fact that he campaigned on a platform of peace," Bush said, adding that he is a "man of courage" and is "committed to democracy." The U.S. President promised him $50 million to be used for new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza "to help ensure that the Gaza disengagement is a success."

Asked if Abbas was doing everything he could to end terrorism, Bush said, "I know the President is committed to democracy... He's committed; that's what he said he was going to do and he's now fulfilling it." He did not elaborate.

Bush also ducked a hard question about the Hamas terrorist organization, which is expected to do well in the upcoming PA elections. Asked if he thought that Abbas should close Hamas down, Bush said no, explaining, "I don't think they're going to get elected, because I think Palestinian moms want their children to grow up in peace just like American moms want their children to grow up in peace. As a matter of fact, I think the people that campaign for peace will win."

Bush used the press conference to speak forcefully to Israel: "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. Therefore, Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion. The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of its security effort must be a security, rather than political, barrier. And its route should take into account, consistent with security needs, its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities. As we make progress toward security, and in accordance with the Road Map, Israeli forces should withdraw to their positions on September the 28th, 2000. Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to. A viable two-state solution must ensure contiguity of the West Bank, and a state of scattered territories will not work. There must also be meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza. This is the position of the United States today, it will be the position of the United States at the time of final status negotiations."

In referring to Israel's Road Map commitments, Bush ignored the fact that the Israeli Government attached 14 reservations to its acceptance of the plan. Two years ago, on May 25, 2003, the Cabinet resolved at the end of a stormy six-hour meeting that "the implementation of the Road Map plan will take place contingent upon the 14 comments that Israel submitted to the Americans."

Though Sharon himself said at the time that these are "red lines beyond which we cannot and will not withdraw," he does not mention them in his public references to the Road Map plan.

Among the reservations are the following points: "There must be no terrorism during the process. The Palestinians will dismantle the existing security organizations and will form new organizations to combat terror, violence and incitement. Full performance will be a condition for progress between phases and for progress within phases. The first condition for progress will be the complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement. Progress between phases will come only following the full implementation of the preceding phase."

In addition to Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister’s Office also issued a calming message today (Friday). "The Palestinians received no new promises, and nothing was said that harms Israel," it said.

Olmert said that the U.S. has always supported territorial contiguity for a PA state, but that in any event, "we cannot begin negotiations on the Road Map Plan before terrorism stops totally, democracy comes and the incitement ends." This appeared to contradict Bush's demands as expressed yesterday.

Bush also said he had asked his Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah "before the beginning of the Israeli withdrawal [to] consult with Israelis and Palestinians on the disengagement, their shared commitments and the way back on the Road Map."

The Bush-Abbas meeting was their second in 18 months, and the first time a PA Chairman has visited the White House since Arafat met the outgoing Bill Clinton in January 2001.