Bush, Olmert seek to bolster Abbas government

story.bush.olmert2.gi.gifWASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday sought to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his battle with Hamas for primacy, calling him a moderate voice and the only true leader of the Palestinian people.Bush and Olmert, before meeting in the Oval Office, both spoke positively to reporters of the prospect for new talks between Abbas and the Israelis.

“I am going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him,” the prime minister said. Bush called Abbas “the president of all the Palestinians” and “a reasonable voice amongst the extremists.”

Bush and Olmert met in the aftermath of turmoil that left Abbas, a Western-backed moderate, in control of one Palestinian government in the inland West Bank and his Islamist rival Hamas in control of the separate Gaza Strip on the coast.

The United States and European Union have been moving quickly to shore up Abbas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday announced an end to an economic and political embargo on the Palestinians. Israel has seemed likely to free up millions in tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, assuming it could ensure that the money flowed only to Abbas’ operation in the West Bank.

“Like you, I want to strengthen the moderates,” Olmert said.

“Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister (Salam) Fayyad — who’s a good fellow — will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction,” Bush said.

Olmert said he would talk to Abbas, but spoke of several prerequisites for any progress toward peace. They included “a much more credible and serious administration” by the Palestinians, and one that will “fight terror in the most effective way,” he said. “This is not something that the Palestinians can escape,” Olmert said.

The prime minister also said he wanted to discuss with Bush the threat to Israel from Iran, whose president has said Israel must be “wiped off the map.”

Bush replied that he views Iran’s statements as a “serious threat” to Israel and that “all options are on the table” to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. Bush said Iran must see that there is “a price to be paid for this kind of intransigence.”

Bush said the split in the Palestinian territories is purely the fault of Hamas. “It was Hamas that attacked the unity government,” the president said. “They made a choice of violence. It was their decision that has caused there to be this current situation in the Middle East.”

On another matter, Olmert played down the possibility of any breakthrough on discussions between Israel and Syria.

“The Syrian leader said that he is against any precondition on the Israel side but he is certainly for preconditions on the Syrian side,” he said. “I’m not certain that the understanding of the president of Syria can lay the foundations for immediate discussions.”

The U.S. has opposed talking to Syria because of its ties to Iran and militants in Iraq and Lebanon. However, Bush is under pressure from allies, lawmakers and advisers who think Washington should improve relations with Syria in an effort to isolate Iran.

When asked about Syria Tuesday, Bush did not seem to change his position.

“If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria he doesn’t need me to mediate … It’s up the prime minister,” Bush said. “This man is plenty capable of having negotiations without me mediating.”

Rice was to brief members of Congress on Tuesday about the administration’s decision to restart the flow of aid to Abbas’ government. The United States, more than a year ago, withheld money for fear it would benefit Hamas radicals governing alongside him.

“It’s a day late and a $100 million short,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who chairs a House subcommittee focused on the Middle East. “If we were delivering goods to (Abbas) and making him the Muslim Santa Claus in the Arab world so he was giving out the goodies, instead of Hamas, they wouldn’t have lost the last election. And Hamas would have withered in the desert.”

Hamas’ surprise 2006 legislative victory ended decades of rule by Abbas’ Fatah Party. Hamas won largely on the strength of the services and smooth government it delivered in its Gaza stronghold.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, conditions the world set for diplomatic engagement and aid. Hamas claims responsibility for the deaths of scores of Israelis in suicide attacks. Israel, the European Union and the United States list it as a terrorist group.

Abbas was elected separately and retained office through months of political impasse and upheaval. He tried a coalition government this spring, but dissolved it last week after days of clashes in Gaza between his forces and Hamas that killed some 100 Palestinians.

As a first step, Rice said she will ask Congress to rework an existing $86 million aid request for the Abbas-led government. At the same time, she announced a separate $40 million contribution to United Nations relief for Palestinian refugees, a gesture to the 1.5 million Palestinians living in increasingly desperate conditions in Gaza.

The cash to Abbas’ government will help him meet his payroll and could improve his standing with Palestinian voters, but he remains weak. Although the Bush administration has made a point of saying that Abbas remains the leader for all Palestinians, the division of the two Palestinian territories means he can fully speak for only about half his more than 3 million people.

Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the split between the territories is a problem that U.S. money can’t fix. Abbas and Fatah have other problems, too, Alterman said, including a history of corruption and inefficiency that had made Congress wary of direct payments long before Hamas became a factor.

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