- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

NEW YORK — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pleaded with President Bush yesterday that his government is “in dire need” of U.S. aid and support as the two leaders sought to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Hours later, the Bush administration joined the European Union, the United Nations and Russia in calling on Israel to release $500 million in tax revenues it has collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority but has refused to free up — a move one U.N. official privately said was a concession by the White House.

“We look forward to your support and your help and your aid, because we are in dire need for your help and support,” Mr. Abbas said after a 40-minute meeting with Mr. Bush. “Mr. President, we will always be faithful and truthful to peace, and we will not disappoint you.”

“I can’t thank you enough for the courage you have shown,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Abbas, a member of the Fatah party, is trying to form a coalition government with Hamas, the terrorist group that won a majority in legislative elections earlier this year but has refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel’s right to exist — conditions the international community has set for major members to resume aid to the Palestinian Authority.

In the afternoon, foreign ministers of the Quartet — composed of the United Nations, Russia, the United States and the European Union — met for more than an hour to assess progress on the somewhat tattered “road map” to Middle East peace.

The statement they released afterward showed an incremental easing of pressure on the Palestinian Authority. The Quartet called on Israel to release the $500 million and endorsed a three-month continuation and an expansion of a separate EU-affiliated program.

The EU program collects and disburses through nongovernmental organizations money earmarked for humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people and funds to help the PA pay its civil servants.

“The Quartet noted that the resumption of transfers of tax and customs revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority would have a significant impact on the Palestinian economy,” the group said.

The Quartet meeting, hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja on behalf of the European Union, as well as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and EU external relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

“This is a strong statement,” said a U.N. official involved with Middle East affairs, adding that “the Americans have conceded a bit,” particularly in urging Israel to release the tax revenues.

Mr. Bush was wrapping up 48 hours in New York that included his address to the U.N. General Assembly and meetings with seven world leaders. In addition to trying to rally opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Bush spent much of his time trying to persuade Mr. Abbas and other Middle Eastern leaders he considers moderates to face radical Muslim movements in their countries.

That includes Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is trying to keep order amid sectarian violence. The administration yesterday strenuously rejected reports that it is losing confidence in Mr. al-Maliki.

“That’s absolutely false,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. “The man has been in power for barely more than 100 days and, frankly, there has been significant progress.”

Mr. Bush, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer yesterday, said that both Army Gen. George Casey, the highest-ranking U.S. military official in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad have confidence in Mr. al-Maliki.

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