President Bush and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meet at the White House Thursday for the first time since Israeli settlers withdrew from the Gaza Strip. U.S. officials are hoping to resume negotiations that were suspended after attacks on Israeli civilians in the West Bank.
White House Spokesman Scott McClellan says President Bush has a real opportunity to help Palestinians move forward toward realizing their aspirations for a separate democratic state.
"There's a real opportunity now and it's important to seize this opportunity," said Mr. Stearns. "It's important that the Palestinian leadership act to prevent violence and dismantle terrorist infrastructure. There is more that can be done."
Mr. McClellan says Israelis and Palestinians both have responsibilities to get back to a peace plan that lays out a timetable for power sharing ahead of the eventual creation of a separate Palestinian state.
He says President Bush is strongly committed to that goal in his work with both Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"He is playing a leading role when it comes to helping the parties move forward on the peace process," he added. "Prime Minister Sharon made an important and bold step when he moved forward on his disengagement plan."
During their White House meeting, Mr. McClellan says President Bush and Mr. Abbas will discuss preparations for Palestinian elections January 25. Bush Administration officials want Palestinian leaders to require candidates in that vote to renounce violence in hopes of discouraging more militant groups from participating.
Prime Minister Sharon says participation in that vote by the militant group Hamas would be unacceptable.
If Israel were to restrict travel for security purposes on Election Day that would likely affect the vote's outcome. Palestinian leaders say Mr. Abbas wants President Bush to convince Israel to dismantle remaining illegal outposts and allow January's vote to proceed freely. He is also looking for the president to pressure Prime Minister Sharon to reverse a ban on Palestinian motorists using the main West Bank roads.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Wednesday that his government has every interest in complying with U.S. requests to ease restrictions on Palestinians, but not at what he called the price of terrorism and casualties.
Three Israelis were killed in separate drive-by shootings in the West Bank just days ago, leading to the decision to keep private Palestinian vehicles off roads used by Israeli settlers.