- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

President Bush yesterday called Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas for the first time, showing a willingness to work with the new leader despite recent suicide attacks on Israel.

The president’s “friendly and hopeful” conversation with Mr. Abbas lasted 15 minutes, said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Although the two leaders did not delve into specifics, Mr. Bush talked of his vision of a Palestinian state existing peacefully with Israel.

The president also renewed his call for an end to terrorism in the Middle East, and Mr. Abbas pledged commitment to ending militancy, enacting reforms and achieving peace, according to Mr. Fleischer. They did not discuss Yasser Arafat’s role in the process.

Mr. Bush has refused to meet or speak with Mr. Arafat since February 2001, after his one and only phone call to the Palestinian Authority chairman, urging him to quell violence in the region.

The president’s overture to Mr. Abbas came 24 hours after the latest of five suicide bombings in the region. The attacks have killed 12 persons, excluding the bombers, and injured hundreds. It was the worst wave of violence in a year and was aimed at derailing the recently released “road map” for Middle East peace, which the United States helped author.

The bombings that began Saturday prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to postpone a visit scheduled for yesterday to the White House. It is not expected to be rescheduled until Mr. Bush returns from a trip to Europe late next week. The president also called Mr. Sharon yesterday.

Israel blames Mr. Arafat for the attacks, but he denies the accusation.

Mr. Sharon had planned to use the meeting with Mr. Bush to raise reservations about the road map, which was drawn up by the United States with its partners in a mediating Quartet — the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The plan stipulates a series of confidence-building steps to bring Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by 2005. Mr. Abbas’ government has endorsed the plan, but Mr. Sharon’s has not, citing mainly security concerns.

Mr. Sharon met Mr. Abbas in Jerusalem on Saturday night, but they failed to resolve disputes over which side should act first to implement the map’s measures.

The Islamic militant group Hamas said on its Web site that it carried out the attack Sunday in Jerusalem’s French Hill district on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. The militants, who began an uprising in late September 2000 against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, have vowed to defy Mr. Abbas’ efforts to curb the violence.

Mr. Bush urged both sides to press forward with the peace process despite the recent bombings.

“The president stressed the need for all parties to take concrete steps,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Mr. Bush said he looked forward to more conversations with Mr. Abbas and to hosting him at the White House.

Mr. Bush also telephoned his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, yesterday to discuss ways to “stop the violence” in the region, Egypt’s Middle East News Agency said.

The two leaders “exchanged views on the means to create a favorable climate to apply concrete measures to stop the violence and counterviolence, in order to restart the peace process,” the state-run agency said.

Mr. Mubarak warned that “the situation would be very serious if the two sides did not take serious steps on the path of peace, in the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” it said.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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