Bush’s call for peace conference ‘step in right direction’ — King

King Abdullah on Monday welcomed US President George W. Bush’s call for an international conference to revive Middle East peace talks, describing it as “a step in the right direction”, a Royal Court statement said.

“The call would open the door for tangible progress in the peace process, which should lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in line with a two-state solution,” the King told Bush over the telephone.

Bush yesterday also warned Palestinians that backing Hamas would “crush” their hopes for their own state.

“Now comes a moment of choice. The alternatives before the Palestinian people are stark,” he said in a speech at the White House aimed at bolstering beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bush warned that support for Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas backers on June 15, would be a victory for the group’s “foreign sponsors” in Syria and Iran and “would crush the possibility of a Palestinian state”. The US president said Israel and the Palestinians and their Arab neighbours can do more to help revive Middle East peace prospects and called for an international conference within months.

“The world can do more to build the conditions for peace,” he said, adding that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will chair the gathering and that attendance will be limited to states that back the creation of a Palestinian state, reject violence, and recognise Israel.

The plan won instant backing from Israel and Abbas, but swift condemnation from Hamas, with spokesman Ismail Radwan telling AFP: “We condemn this American conference which aims to serve the interests of the Zionist enemy.”

“The conference will lead to increased pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and separate the Gaza Strip more deeply from the West Bank while sowing division among Palestinians,” Radwan added.

Bush also urged Arab nations to end “the fiction that Israel does not exist,” curb anti-Israel rhetoric in their media and send Cabinet-level officials to the Jewish state.

And Bush pushed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to continue to release Palestinian tax revenue to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, halt Israeli settlement expansion and dismantle unauthorised outposts.

Israelis “should be confident that the United States will never abandon its commitment to the security of Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for Jewish people,” said the embattled US president.

Bush also hailed talks earlier in the day between Olmert and Abbas, as a senior Israeli official said the prime minister had pledged to free 250 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to the Palestinian leader.

But while welcoming the release, the Palestinians said the freeing of 250 prisoners out of the more than 11,000 currently held in Israeli jails was not enough.

Bush also announced a direct US contribution of $80   to help Abbas reform his security services. Two US officials said the money was being shifted from Gaza to Fayyad government.

King Abdullah yesterday said the aid was “a constructive step that would help ease the harsh economic and living conditions of the Palestinian people,” according to the Royal Court.

More US aid will come when former British prime minister Tony Blair, now the envoy for the Middle East “Quartet” of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, reports success in building a plan for bolstering Palestinian security and political institutions.

“With the proper foundation, we can soon begin serious negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state,” said Bush.

But “we’re not going to announce a dollar amount for a plan that has yet to be elaborated or announced”,  a senior US official said on condition of anonymity.

The United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia are to meet in the Portuguese capital Lisbon on Thursday to take stock after Abbas appointed a new government following the abrupt takeover of Gaza by Hamas.

It is to be the first meeting between the Quartet’s chief diplomats, including Rice, and Blair, who was named to the envoy post shortly after stepping down as British leader on June 27.

But the United States, which sees Blair’s job as preparing the ground for the establishment of viable Palestinian institutions, is reluctant to define for him any political mission.

Last week, Washington was not willing to allow Blair to negotiate with Hamas, the Palestinian party which the US brands a terrorist organisation.

However, 10 European foreign ministers have recently urged the new Quartet envoy to widen his mandate with the goal of unblocking the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib on Monday called on the European Union to play a “more active” role in the Middle East peace process, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

During a visit to Portugal, which currently holds the  rotating EU presidency, Khatib held talks with his Portuguese counterpart Luis Amado on Europe’s role in pushing the peace process forward.

Last month, the United States and EU lifted an embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian territories after Abbas sacked the Hamas-led unity government following Hamas’ bloody seizure of the Gaza Strip.

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