Bush critical of Israel during meeting with Palestinian Abbas

Saturday, July 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Friday that both sides must do more to advance the U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan: He criticized Israel for building a security fence and allowing new settlements and told visiting Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that all terror activity must cease.

Standing at Bush's side in the White House Rose Garden, Abbas made a strong pitch for the president's help in winning Israeli concessions.

"All settlement activities must be stopped," Abbas said, "and the wall must come down."

Bush's vision of a Palestinian state by 2005 "cannot be realized if Israel continues to grab Palestinian land," Abbas said.

His visit to the White House was the first by a Palestinian leader since Bush took office in January 2001. Bush had shunned Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian authority and a symbol of the Palestinian movement for four decades. After an Oval Office meeting, Bush and Abbas took reporters' questions in the Rose Garden, then had lunch.

Bush offered a sympathetic ear to Abbas' demand for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

But he said it should be decided case-by-case, and he would not press Israel to release inmates who could be expected to engage in terror attacks on the outside.

"Surely, nobody wants to let a cold-blooded killer out of prison that would help derail the process," Bush said.

Sharon visit scheduled

Trying to give some energy to the so-called road map peace plan he helped launch last month in Aqaba, Jordan, Bush is to follow his session with Abbas by meeting next Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

There has been a lull in violence under a fragile cease-fire during the past month, but little in the way of specific steps by either side to move toward implementing the plan, which specifies a series of confidence-building measures.

Palestinians complain that Israelis are expanding settlements on Palestinian lands, while Israelis say the Palestinians have failed to disarm militant groups.

Turning to Abbas at his right, Bush said: "I'm going to tell you point-blank that we must make sure that any terrorist activity is rooted out in order for us to be able to deal with these big issues."

"This is the time of possibility in the Middle East," Bush said.

"People in the region are counting on the leaders to seize opportunities for peace and progress."

Abbas' support at home is shaky. He was hoping to win Bush's backing for the mass release of many of the estimated 7,700 Palestinian prisoners held for alleged involvement in terror. Israel has agreed to free only a few hundred.

Although the prisoner issue is not addressed in the road map peace plan, it has become huge for the Palestinians.

Abbas "expressed a strong desire to see the release of many more prisoners," Bush said. The president said he would bring the issue up with Sharon next week but made it clear he wouldn't push Sharon to issue a blanket amnesty.

"I think it is very important to analyze the prisoner situation on a case-by-case basis," Bush said.

"I fully understand the prime minister's desire, I fully understand his request, and therefore will continue to talk to both sides on this issue. But I would never ask anybody in any society to let a prisoner out who would then commit terrorist actions," Bush said.

The president said he shared Abbas' frustration with Israel's building of a separation fence in the West Bank and promised to take it up again with Sharon. "It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis with a wall snaking through the West Bank," Bush said.

The fence is designed to restrict movement of Palestinians into Israel.

On Israeli settlements, Bush said, "I've constantly spoken out about the end of settlements. I have done so consistently. "

Among Israel's obligations under the peace plan is the dismantling of the roughly 100 settlements built recently in the West Bank without Israeli government approval. Israel has removed about a dozen, and a similar number have gone back up. Sharon has pledged to remove what he considers illegal outposts. The Palestinians want all settlements to taken off land promised for a Palestinian state.

The road map itself demands that Israel to freeze construction in the 150 established Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which has not been done.

Bush also announced he was sending Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans to the Middle East this fall to begin work on bringing jobs and development to Palestinian areas. Abbas thanked Bush for $20 million in direct assistance to Palestinians and for "relentless efforts" to pursue peace.

"Too many years and lives have been squandered by resentment and violence," Bush said. "The Palestinian people, like people everywhere, deserve freedom, they deserve an honest government and they deserve peace."

Even though the bloodshed has subsided, an Israeli soldier in the West Bank shot and killed a 4-year-old Palestinian boy and wounded two other children Friday. The army called the shooting an accident, but a Palestinian official said the soldier fired unprovoked at a vehicle waiting at a road block.

Recognizing Abbas' somewhat fragile political position among Palestinians, Bush "asked Abbas, and others who were with him, 'What else can we do to help you?"' presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said.

He didn't say how Abbas answered.

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