updated 2/2/2005 10:42:37 PM ET 2005-02-03T03:42:37

Eager to help Middle East peacemaking and combat Palestinian poverty, President Bush said Wednesday he would seek $350 million to support the Palestinians.

“The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure,” the president said, noting that he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region early next week. Bush made his comments at the State of the Union address on Wednesday night.

He said the money would go toward political, economic and social reforms for the Palestinians.

Bush administration officials have concluded that training needs to be improved, and the Palestinians need more jobs and better facilities, in order for peacemaking with Israel to have a chance.

Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem who is a consultant to the Palestinians, said Wednesday that Bush and Rice were prepared to be generous in dealing with a financial crisis on the West Bank and in Gaza.

Election of a new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died in November, has generated support from Israel and the United States.

Egypt on Wednesday summoned the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan to a summit meeting next week, and they agreed to attend.

Rice to confer with both leaders
Rice, meanwhile, is due in Israel late Sunday after stops in Europe for talks with allied and other leaders. Over about 24 hours she plans to confer separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and with Abbas. She had no plans to attend the four-nation summit talks in Egypt.

“In many ways, the visit itself is the message,” Abington said.

“The Palestinians will want to hear the details of what the U.S. is going to do in concrete ways to rebuild their security services and to deal with their desperate economic situation,” he said.

Bush devoted part of his State of the Union speech Wednesday night to his hopes for Middle East peacemaking. He was expected to ask Congress for $350 million for the Palestinians; $225 million of that appears to be new money.

Rice said Monday that peace was impossible unless the Palestinians gained a state of their own that satisfies their aspirations. She also said statehood was “within our grasp.”

The Europeans immediately welcomed her remarks. John Bruton, head of the European Commission in Washington, said Tuesday it was a very important statement.

Change in the wind?
European leaders have been urging Bush to assume a larger role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their general view is that unless Israel yields to Palestinian demands, anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world will not subside. That message is bound to be conveyed to Rice as she makes her way through European capitals before flying to Israel.

Edward S. Walker, president of the Middle East Institute, said, “I definitely hear something new in there.”

“She thinks there are going to be benefits for the U.S. interests and for the president’s democracy agenda,” the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel said in an interview.

Referring to the Abbas-led Palestinians, Walker said: “This is possibly going to be an even better example than Iraq in developing democracy. The Palestinians have a better shot.”

What Rice's presence signals
Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, said, “Given there have been positive events, it is almost certain that she would want to signal this is going to be an important issue for her and for the United States.”

Telhami, in an interview, said, “People are going to listen to see if there are substantive positions besides promises for an American diplomatic initiative.”

But already, the veteran analyst said, “Her position on a Palestinian state in recent days has been far more clear than the administration has provided in the past.”

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