Wednesday, June 20, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday declared that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a U.S.-backed moderate who ousted the militant Islamic group Hamas from a unity government earlier this week, is the one true leader of “all the Palestinian people.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert, who met in the Oval Office amid a spiraling crisis in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, pledged to work to bolster Mr. Abbas’ fragile Fatah government. Mr. Bush condemned Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last week in a bloody clash with Fatah forces that left more than 100 people dead.

“First of all, we recognize the president of all the Palestinian people, and that’s President Abu Mazen,” Mr. Bush said, referring to Mr. Abbas by his Arabic honorific. “He was elected; he’s the president.”

The president also said that Mr. Abbas “has spoken out for moderation. He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood.”

Mr. Olmert agreed, saying, “Like you, I want to strengthen the moderates,” and he pledged to “make every possible effort to cooperate” with Mr. Abbas.

Both leaders put the blame for the surge in violence on Hamas, with Mr. Bush saying the terrorist group “attacked the unity government. They made a choice of violence. It was their decision that has caused there to be this current situation in the Middle East.”

After Hamas forces took over the Gaza Strip last week, Mr. Abbas ejected the elected Hamas leaders from a coalition Hamas-Fatah government and installed an emergency Cabinet. He appointed as prime minister a prominent Palestinian, Salam Fayyad, who earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas.

“Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad — who’s a good fellow — will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction,” Mr. Bush told reporters at the start of White House talks with Mr. Olmert.

The Israeli leader was more cautious, saying prerequisites for any progress toward peace include “a much more credible and serious administration” by the Palestinians.

The new Cabinet rules only the inland West Bank while the coastal Gaza Strip remains under Hamas’ control, leaving the region in limbo. Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Olmert yesterday offered any concrete ideas to solve the political standoff.

Since Mr. Abbas expelled Hamas from the unity government, the United States and several Western powers have pledged support for his efforts, freeing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and lifting economic embargoes.

The Bush administration on Monday lifted economic sanctions and a diplomatic embargo against the Palestinian government, and asked Congress to review an $86 million aid package.

Mr. Olmert this week pledged to release Palestinian tax revenues withheld since Hamas came to power in 2006, and the Israeli leader insisted again yesterday that he would do everything possible to cooperate with Mr. Abbas’ new government.

After Monday’s strong endorsement by European and U.S. leaders, Arab allies of the United States yesterday threw their support behind Mr. Abbas’ government, fearing the takeover of Gaza by Hamas could spread turmoil in the region.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are ready to isolate Hamas, forcing it to realize it cannot rule the impoverished Gaza Strip alone and must reconcile with Mr. Abbas’ moderate Fatah movement.

Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter said yesterday that the United States, Israel and the European Union must end their policy of favoring Fatah over Hamas.

He said the American-Israeli-European effort to resume direct aid to Mr. Abbas’ government but to deny the same to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip represents an “effort to divide Palestinians into two peoples.”

“All efforts of the international community should be to reconcile the two, but there’s no effort from the outside to bring the two together,” Mr. Carter said at Ireland’s Forum on Human Rights.

Mr. Bush also announced yesterday he will send Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns to Israel next month to continue negotiations on a new, 10-year military aid deal.

“I am strongly committed to Israel’s security and viability as a Jewish state, and to the maintenance of its qualitative military edge,” the president said.

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