The anti-Israel group Hamas charged Thursday that President Bush is trying to set Palestinians against each other with his call to move against militant groups in a White House meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
At a joint news conference outside the White House, Bush praised Abbas and said prospects for Palestinians gaining a state were bright.
“President Abbas is a man devoted to peace and to his people’s aspiration for a state of their own,” Bush said. “And today, the Palestinian people are closer to realizing their aspirations.”
But, Bush said at a news conference after a one-hour meeting in the Oval Office, “the way forward is confronting the threat armed gangs present to creation of a democratic Palestine.”
Hamas spokesman furious
Israelis noted that Bush did not call publicly for Hamas to be excluded from Palestinian parliamentary elections, set for January, but Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri was furious with the U.S. leader’s call for a crackdown on militants.
“We consider this as serious American interference in our internal affairs aimed to create an internal conflict,” he said.
Hamas does not recognize a Jewish state in the Middle East and has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis during the last five years of conflict.
Abbas has been reluctant to force a confrontation with the militants, preferring to negotiate an end to attacks on Israelis and draw Hamas and other extremist groups into the political process.
Abbas’ call to all
At the news conference with Bush, Abbas noted that all Palestinian factions could take part in the January election.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel’s Channel 2 TV that once Hamas takes a political role in elections and the parliament, it amounts to the first step toward giving up its weapons.
“The Palestinian election law is clear ... no one can use guns and no one can incite verbally and no one can use mosques,” Erekat said, “No one can get their political goals through the means of force. So the election law provides that those persons and those parties and those factions who run for elections must understand that only through peaceful means can they make changes.”
Supporting Abbas, Bush called on Israel to stop constructing settlements on the West Bank. He assured Abbas he shared his vision of two states living side by side in peace and security.
“Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its road map obligations,” Bush said, referring to a blueprint for peacemaking approved by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
Israel will be ‘held to account’
Without elaboration, the president said Israel would be “held to account” for any actions that hamper peacemaking or burden the lives of Palestinians.
But Bush said he was a “heck of a lot more confident” of peace prospects than when he first took office five years ago. Both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are committed to making peace, he said.
Abbas, in response, insisted that Israel lift curbs on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, saying the restrictions had caused the Palestinians “hardship and humiliation.”
The Palestinian leader also criticized Israel’s security wall, particularly its location in Jerusalem, where the Palestinians intended to establish the capital of their state. He assured Bush that election of a Palestinian legislature in January would establish one law to govern the area.
With Bush’s support, the Palestinians are a step closer to what Abbas spoke of last May, when he was last at the White House and said Palestinians were “in dire need of freedom” from Israeli control.
Since then — thanks largely to an initiative by Sharon — Israel has relinquished Gaza after a 38-year occupation, and has dismantled four West Bank settlements.
But almost all the 1.4 million Palestinians who live in Gaza are desperately poor. Abbas is seeking help from Israel to get November’s harvest to outside markets, and also would like to focus attention on Palestinian demands for full-scale Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Abbas is counting on legislative elections in January to advance Palestinian self-rule. But the travel curbs are raising suspicions that Israel might disrupt the balloting in its zeal to throttle Hamas, whose participation in the Palestinian elections has Abbas’ approval.
In advance of Abbas’ arrival, American diplomats registered with Palestinian officials a U.S. request that candidates in next January’s election be required to renounce violence as a means of easing tensions with Israel, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.
But Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem who advises the Palestinian leadership, said Abbas prefers bringing Hamas and other militant groups into the political process, where he hopes to bind them to law-and-order legislation.
“As far as running in an election, you cannot cherry-pick between those you like and those you don’t like,” Abington said in an interview. “But once they are in the legislature they will be bound by the decisions and the laws passed by the legislature.”