President Bush welcomed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to the White House Friday, praising him as a visionary leader committed to Middle East peace. Mr. Abbas wants Mr. Bush to pressure Israeli leaders to release more Palestinian prisoners and stop construction of a wall dividing Israeli and Palestinian areas.
President Bush said Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are making progress on the so-called road map toward Middle East peace and he believes that together, the two men can bring a bright future to the region.
"This is the time of possibility in the Middle East," said Mr. Bush, "and the people of the region are counting on the leaders to seize opportunities for peace and progress. Too many years and lives have been squandered by resentment and violence."
This was the White House invitation Yasser Arafat never received, as Mr. Bush refused to meet with the Palestinian leader who he says is not doing enough to fight terrorism.
Hosting Mr. Abbas for a White House lunch and questions with reporters in the Rose Garden is as much part of the president's approach to show that he is staying personally involved in the process, as it is to shore up Mr. Abbas's standing in the Palestinian legislature, which has vowed to review its confidence in his leadership following this Washington trip.
For his part, Mr. Abbas said the Palestinian Authority is meeting its obligations to reform its security and financial operations. He called on Israel to reciprocate by freeing more prisoners, lifting the siege on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and stopping the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.
"A transformation in the human conditions on the ground must occur," he said. "As you have said many times, Mr. President, attacks on the dignity of the Palestinians must end. Palestinians must be able to move, go to their jobs and schools, and conduct a normal life."
Mr. Abbas said Israel has taken some "hesitant" steps, but called on Prime Minister Sharon to demonstrate what he calls the "courageous logic of peace, not suspicious logic of conflict." President Bush agreed with the Palestinian leader that an Israeli security fence in the West Bank is a "problem" that he will discuss with Prime Minister Sharon when he visits the White House Tuesday. "It is very difficult to develop confidence between Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank," said Mr. Bush.
The president thanked Mr. Sharon for taking steps to ease Palestinian concerns including removing more checkpoints and transferring security responsibilities for two more towns in the West Bank. "To break through old hatreds and barriers to peace," said Mr. Bush, "the Middle East needs leaders of vision and courage and a determination to serve the interests of their people."
Mr. Bush announced a series of measures to improve living conditions for Palestinians, saying Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans will travel to the region to begin work on bringing jobs and development to Palestinian areas. He told Mr. Abbas that the United States will "strive to see that promises are kept" and will monitor progress toward creating an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.