- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas yesterday charged that Israel’s failure to stem violence in the Middle East threatens prospects for peace, but President Bush in a sharp retort said terrorism is the biggest obstacle.

Mr. Abbas, meeting for the first time at the White House with the president, said the ambitious multinational “road map” to peace laid out with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cannot be achieved “if Israel continues to grab Palestinian land.”

“If the settlement activities in Palestinian land and construction of the so-called ‘separation wall’ on confiscated Palestinian land continue, we might soon find ourselves at a situation where the foundation of peace, a free Palestine state, living side-by-side in peace and security in Israel is a factual impossibility,” Mr. Abbas said.

“We have succeeded significantly, where Israel with its military might has failed, in reducing violence,” added Mr. Abbas, who replaced Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian Authority’s chief international negotiator.

Mr. Bush expressed little patience for a return to the kind of violence that has ripped the Middle East for nearly three years.

“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,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Abbas in a Rose Garden appearance.

“Nobody is going to accept a situation in which they become less secure, whether it be the Palestinian people or the Israeli people. Security is the essential roadblock to achieving the road map to peace.”

Mr. Abbas is the Palestinian leader supported by the United States and Israel, but is losing confidence within the Palestinian parliament, which could unseat him. He came to Washington in pursuit of U.S. support for Israeli concessions.

“For the sake of peace and for the sake of future Palestinian and Israeli generations, all settlement activities must be stopped now,” Mr. Abbas said, and the wall Israel is constructing to divide it from Palestinian areas should be dismantled.

While Mr. Bush reiterated his strong support for Mr. Abbas, the prime minister appeared to have failed in his mission.

Mr. Bush did not express support for a freeze on settlements, although he did repeat his position that Israel begin dismantling unauthorized villages in Palestinian territory.

“I’ve constantly spoken out for the need to end the settlements … and we’ll continue to work with both sides on this very sensitive issue,” he said. “This is necessary.”

Mr. Bush did not join Mr. Abbas in calling for Israel to remove the wall, but did say the security boundary around large sections of Palestinian territory, ostensibly to protect Israeli civilians from terrorist attacks, was a “problem.”

“It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and … Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank,” Mr. Bush said. “And I will continue to discuss this issue very clearly with the prime minister” of Israel, who visits the White House on Tuesday.

In Israel, Mr. Sharon made two concessions, agreeing to transfer two more West Bank cities to Palestinian control and shut down three major roadblocks erected to thwart suicide bombers and other attackers entering West Bank settlements.

Palestinians said the roadblocks prevented nothing but their mobility.

A statement by Mr. Sharon’s office said decisions on which cities would be handed over and the timing of the transfers would be made next week in a meeting between the Israeli defense minister and the Palestinian security chief.

So far, Israel has pulled troops out of parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

On another top issue for Mr. Abbas — the Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners — Mr. Bush was not supportive.

“Surely nobody wants to let a cold-blooded killer out of prison that would help derail the process,” Mr. Bush said. “I mean, after all, it doesn’t make any sense if you’ve got somebody who is bent upon destroying lives and killing people in prison to, if you were to let him out, it would make it harder to achieve the peace we all want.

“And so I think it’s very important to analyze the prisoner situation on a case-by-case basis.”

Israel has agreed to free several hundred of the 7,700 Palestinians it holds, but has not yet committed to releasing thousands, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, which the White House said yesterday are enemies of peace.

Israel argues that Mr. Abbas’ government needs to begin disarming militants responsible for attacks on Israelis as a condition for real progress on the peace plan.

The “road map” to peace kicked off last month in Aqaba, Jordan, with Mr. Bush, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon meeting for several hours on the tenets of the plan, which calls for an end to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

But there have been several setbacks, including more violence yesterday, when an Israeli soldier opened fire on a truck on the West Bank, killing a 4-year-old boy and wounding two other children.

Still, Mr. Bush expressed confidence in the peace process and the efforts of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

“To break through old hatreds and barriers to peace, the Middle East needs leaders of vision and courage and determination to serve the interests of their people,” the president said.

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