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Palestinians Welcome Bush Assurances

Palestinian officials welcome signs of confidence from President Bush and renewed pledges for moving toward a viable two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinian expectations for concrete results from President Abbas' trip to Washington were not very high. But, officials now say the visit went better than expected.

There was some important symbolism. Mr. Abbas was the first Palestinian leader to visit the White House since President Bush took office in 2001. He was warmly received by Mr. Bush who had staunchly refused to meet with his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

And, Mr. Abbas got some of what he wanted. President Bush pledged $50 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, seen as a sign of renewed confidence in the Authority's ability to handle the funds properly.

Mr. Bush also issued a stronger admonishment to Israel to dismantle some of its settlement outposts and stop its expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told VOA, such statements are greatly appreciated as are reassuring words from the U.S. president on promoting the peace process.

"We appreciate very much the statements of President Bush concerning the end game of maintaining a two-state solution, his call upon the Israeli government to stop settlement activities and that issues reserved to the permanent status [i.e. a final peace agreement] - like [the status of] Jerusalem, settlements, borders and refugees - should not be pre-judged through unilateral steps," Mr. Erekat said.

Palestinians have long complained about Israeli efforts to establish facts on the ground that would prove hard to undo in any future peace settlement.

They also object to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's assertion that he has assurances from President Bush that Israel will be able to hold onto major West Bank settlement blocks in any future peace deal. Palestinians say such assurances would prejudge future negotiations.

At a joint news conference, President Bush made it clear that final borders must be negotiated and any changes Israel made to its boundaries since the 1948 war of independence "must be mutually agreed to."

Israeli officials are downplaying President Bush's stronger warnings to Israel. Senior officials say he may have done this publicly to show support for President Abbas. They say they are confident Washington's position and strong support for Israel has not changed.