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Abbas, praised for efforts, requests U.S. aid

Associated Press
Published May 27, 2005

WASHINGTON - President Bush embraced Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday as a courageous democratic reformer and bolstered his standing at home with $50-million in assistance to improve the quality of life in Gaza.

Abbas, the first top Palestinian leader to visit the White House during Bush's presidency, said Palestinians are "in dire need to have freedom" from Israeli control and that the need for U.S. help is urgent. He spoke just weeks before scheduled parliamentary elections in which his supporters are vying against the militant group Hamas.

"Time is becoming our greatest enemy," Abbas said toward the end of a three-day visit during which he projected himself as the peaceful successor to Yasser Arafat and depicted the Palestinians as long suffering at the hands of Israel. Arafat, who died in November, was never invited to the White House by Bush.

Laying claim to all the land the Arabs lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast War, including East Jerusalem, Abbas said, "It is time for our people, after many decades of suffering and dispossessions, to enjoy living in freedom on their own land."

The boundaries of a Palestinian state should be those that existed before the 1967 war, he said, meaning before Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

At a joint news conference in the sunlit Rose Garden, Bush lent support to the Palestinians' territorial demands. Israel needs Palestinian consent to retain land the Arabs lost 38 years ago, he said.

Any changes Israel made in expanding its boundaries since the end of the 1948 war for independence "must be mutually agreed to," Bush said. And Israel must remove illegal makeshift outposts from the West Bank and stop expanding Jewish settlements, he said.

Despite the display of comity, Bush and Abbas differed on the barrier Israel is constructing to screen out terrorists.

"There is no justification for the wall," Abbas said, "and it is illegitimate."

The barrier is part of an Israeli security effort, Bush said, and it "must be a security rather than a political barrier."

Israeli officials attribute a sharp decline in terror attacks to the barrier.

Overall, the atmosphere at the White House was warm and in sharp contrast to the Bush administration's appraisal of Arafat as corrupt and a supporter of attacks on Israel.

Asked whether Abbas had moved aggressively to dismantle terror groups in Palestinian-held areas, Bush said he knew the leader was committed to democracy and was elected on a peace platform.

"You cannot have a democracy based upon rule of law if you have armed bands of people who will use their weapons to try to achieve a political outcome," Bush said.

Still, he did not directly call on Abbas to dismantle Palestinian terror groups, though he reaffirmed that Hamas fit that description as far as he was concerned.

Bush said he would send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East to talk to Israeli and Palestinian leaders before the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza this summer. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said she probably will go in mid June.

In a show of support, Bush said he will provide $50-million to the Palestinian Authority, which Abbas heads.

The money is to be used for new housing in Gaza, which Israel plans to evacuate this summer.

To get around Arafat, all but $20-million in U.S. aid for the Palestinians during the past decade has been channeled to third parties, not the Palestinian Authority.

"These funds will be used to improve the quality of life of the Palestinians living in Gaza," the president said.

The $50-million will come out of $200-million in U.S. aid approved by Congress for the current year, Boucher said.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said Abbas is engaged in a struggle with Hamas for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people and needs "to bring real results to his people."

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, said in Ramallah that the $50-million is a "modest beginning" and that she is "sure the United States is capable of giving greater support not only to Gaza but also for the West Bank."

[Last modified May 27, 2005, 00:41:05]

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