President Bush today called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to build on recent progress toward Middle East peace, urging Israel to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and pressing the Palestinian Authority to "dismantle terrorist infrastructure."
Bush issued the demands after a meeting at the White House with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Appearing with Abbas in the White House Rose Garden after the meeting, Bush said the recent Israeli withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank was "a bold decision" that also "creates responsibilities" for the Palestinians.
"The way forward must begin by confronting the threat that armed gangs pose to a genuinely democratic Palestine," Bush said.
Abbas, making his second visit to the White House since he was elected in January, appealed for U.S. help in ending Israel's "policies of occupation" and in assuring freedom of movement and other liberties for Palestinians.
He warned that "democracy can lose a lot of its momentum in the absence of freedom and with the continuation of occupation."
Neither leader mentioned in his opening statement or answers to questions the issue of participation by militant Palestinian groups in legislative elections scheduled for January. There had been reports before the meeting that Bush would urge Abbas to exclude candidates from groups such as Hamas from running in the elections, a demand advanced by Israel. Abbas previously has rejected the idea, suggesting that participation would have a moderating influence.
White House reporters, limited to two questions at the press briefing, did not ask Bush about the issue, instead seeking comment on domestic matters. Asked how he was dealing with "distractions" raised by a CIA leak investigation, criticism of his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and investigations of Republican leaders in Congress, Bush said he would keep concentrating on issues such as Middle East peace, the economy and hurricane relief.
"There's some background noise here, a lot of chatter, a lot of speculation and opining," Bush said. "But the American people expect me to do my job, and I'm going to."
In his opening statement, Bush said he would soon name a new senior security coordinator to work with the Palestinian Authority on steps aimed at implementing his "road map" to Middle East peace.
"This person will take on an enhanced mission to help President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority carry out their responsibility to end terror attacks, dismantle terrorist infrastructure, maintain law and order and one day provide security for their own state," Bush said.
"The Palestinian Authority must also earn the confidence of its neighbors by rejecting and fighting terrorism," Bush said.
"At the same time, Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its road map obligations or prejudices the final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem," Bush added. "This means that Israel must remove unauthorized posts and stop settlement expansion. It also means that the barrier now being built to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks must be a security barrier, rather than a political barrier. Israeli leaders must take into account the impact the security barrier has on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities."
Asked by an Arab reporter what he is doing to stop Israeli settlement activities that are continuing on the West Bank despite his repeated calls to end them, Bush said, "We are holding people to account on the pledges that both the Palestinians and the Israelis have made on the road map. And we do so publicly, and we do so privately."
He did not mention any specific U.S. actions to back his demands for an end to settlement expansion.
Abbas said his government is "intensifying our work in the field of security," has "banned armed demonstrations" and is pursuing reforms.
"The time has come to put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Abbas said. He called for the resumption of permanent status negotiations with Israel.
"Peace requires a departure from the policies of occupation and the adoption of the principle of freedom," he told Bush. "Peace requires departure from the policies of settlement construction, collective punishment [and] unilateral acts that undermine your vision toward two states. . . . Peace and security cannot be guaranteed by the construction of walls, by the erection of checkpoints and the confiscation of land, but rather by the recognition of rights."
In an opinion piece published in today's Wall Street Journal, Abbas charged that Israel was undermining Bush's "road map" by restricting the freedom of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and continuing to expand settlements in the West Bank. He accused Israel of effectively strengthening the hand of radicals opposed to the peace process and appealed to Bush to help Palestinians realize his own vision of freedom.
Since Israel announced its plan to withdraw from Gaza two years ago, Abbas wrote, it has "accelerated its settlement expansion in the Palestinian heartland," engaging in "the highest rate of West Bank settlement construction in all the occupation years."
Abbas also charged that Israel reneged on an agreement with him by keeping Gaza's airport and crossing point to Egypt closed, putting its waters off-limits to fishermen, sealing its borders and making movement in and out of Gaza "virtually impossible." This has discouraged potential investors, he said.