Palestinian leader makes crucial White House visit

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was set on Thursday for a groundbreaking summit at the White House, seeking strong United States commitments to a viable Palestinian state and a halt to Israeli settlement expansion.

With the Middle East peace process at a new crucial juncture, Abbas was due for crucial talks with US President George Bush, who had shunned his predecessor Yasser Arafat but met regularly with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Abbas, who already conferred with administration and congressional leaders, is looking for renewed support for an independent and contiguous Palestinian state to counter what he said is an Israeli bid to undermine the idea.

He said the US-backed notion of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has claimed 4 760 lives since September 2000 is a concept “under attack”.

“Every day Israel is undertaking steps that undermine President Bush’s vision and effectively preclude a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Abbas wrote in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

Abbas also rapped Israel’s continued settlement activity in the West Bank and its security barrier, which he said is “suffocating Palestinian cities and towns” and threatening the establishment of a workable state.

He signalled that efforts at Palestinian reforms are also at risk.

“If the two-state solution dies, our democracy cannot be far behind, for democracy and freedom are intertwined: it is impossible to have one without the other.”

The first visit by a Palestinian to the White House in more than four years comes at a delicate time, with both sides struggling to maintain a fragile ceasefire and Israel preparing to pull out of Gaza unilaterally.

Abbas said the Gaza withdrawal must be seen only as “first step” and followed by moves on the West Bank and a resumption of talks on so-called final issues if the process is to stay on track.

“This period of calm will be quickly undermined if peace talks are not immediately launched,” he wrote in the Journal. “The time for half-solutions, interim agreements and partial accords is over.”

Abbas also sought to transfer US aid directly to the Palestinians and not through third parties because of fears of corruption.
The Americans have disbursed only a fraction of the $350-million earmarked this year.

Bush, the first US president to endorse the creation of an independent Palestinian state, is expected to push both sides to fulfil their obligations under the internationally drafted peace “road map”.

While the White House has praised Abbas’s efforts to rein in attacks by Palestinian militants, spokesperson Scott McClellan said it is “important that he continue to move forward to dismantle terrorist networks and organisations”.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Palestinian security forces need further reform although Abbas has “made a lot of good structural changes” since taking over from the late Arafat in January.

“More can always be done and I do think that we will want to talk about what more can be done,” Rice said before meeting Abbas on Wednesday. “But let’s not underestimate the fact that he’s done a great deal.”

Rice said Bush is ready to give Abbas the assurances he is seeking, including a renewed commitment to a Palestinian state “that would have contiguous territory”.

“He [Bush] has said that Israel needs to end its settlement expansion because that is not in accordance with Israel’s obligations,” Rice said.

“And he’s said that Israel must do nothing that prejudges a final status agreement because these territorial issues have to be mutually agreed by the parties at time of final status.”

But Rice was cool to prospects for incorporating this into a letter that Abbas was reportedly seeking to match the written commitments given to Sharon last year.

“There hasn’t been a discussion of a letter that I’m aware of,” she said. “The words are there. He’s got the commitment.”—Sapa-AFP

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