President George W. Bush heaped praise Thursday on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and said prospects for Palestinian gaining a state seem to be closer than ever before.
But Bush said at a news conference after one-hour meeting in the Oval Office that "The way forward is confronting the threat armed gangs present to creation of a democratic Palestine."
Supporting Abbas, Bush called on Israel to stop constructing settlements on the West Bank. He assured Abbas he shared his vision of two states living side by side in peace and security.
Bush: Way forward is confronting threat of armed gangs (Photo: AFP)
"Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its roadmap obligations," Bush said, referring to a blueprint for peacemaking approved by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
Without elaboration, the president said
Israel would be "held to account" for any actions that hamper peacemaking or burden the lives of Palestinians.
But Bush said he was a "heck of a lot more confident" of peace prospects than when he first took office five years ago. Both Abbas and Prime minister Ariel Sharon are committed to making peace, he said.
Abbas, in response, insisted on Israel lifting curbs on Palestinian travel on the West Bank, saying they had turned the lives of Palestinians into "Hardship and humiliation."
The Palestinian leader also criticized Israel's security wall, particularly its location in Jerusalem, where the Palestinians intend to establish the capital of a Palestinian state.
'Blow to the emerging Palestinian democracy'
He assured Bush that election of a Palestinian legislature in January would establish one law to govern the area.
Earlier Abbas met with U.S. Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice to prepare for his summit meeting Bush.
During the session, Abbas found himself going on the defensive regarding the chaos in the Gaza Strip following the Israeli withdrawal, as well as the continuation of terror attacks.
The Palestinian Authority should maintain law and order in the Strip to demonstrate its ability to exercise leadership, Rice told Abbas. The Palestinian leader, in turn, said that Israel’s pullout from Gaza was not sufficient and pushed for a return to the negotiations table following a five-year hiatus.
Another issue prominently discussed in the meeting was the question of Hamas participation in upcoming Palestinian elections scheduled for January 2006, an issue Israel has hotly contested. Abbas told Rice, and also Meretz-Yachad leader Yossi Beilin who is currently in Washington, that undermining the elections because of Hamas would constitute a “blow to the emerging Palestinian democracy.”
In a Wall Street Journal article published hours before the White House talks Bush, Abbas said he had done his part to pave the way to peacemaking by starting security reforms and generally maintaining a truce by terrorists.
“Unfortunately, Palestinians cannot pursue the Road Map alone,” he wrote, referring to the U.S.-devised peace plan calling for Palestinian statehood in Gaza and the West Bank beside a secure Israel.
“Israel has created obstacles in the face of a full and unconditional return to the negotiating table and acted as if Israel can resolve the Middle East conflict unilaterally.”
The PA leader also mentioned the expansion of the Israeli settlements as a factor that may obstruct peace in the region. He claimed Israel’s policies only encourage extremism “during this critical time when a battle is being waged for the hearts of the Palestinians, who are torn between progress and fundamentalism.”
Associated Press contributed to this report