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Middle East: Bush, Abbas Confer At White House

Washington, 28 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush met on 25 July with Mahmoud Abbas to hear the Palestinian prime minister's demands for Israeli peace concessions.

Bush met for about a half-hour with Abbas at the White House, a session that both men called "good" and "fruitful." Israeli Prime Minister Sharon is due to visit the White House for talks with Bush today.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Abbas said Israel must end Israeli settlements in Palestinian lands, free as many as 3,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody, and tear down a security fence along and inside the West Bank's borders.

On only one of these issues did Bush seem to agree entirely: the fence.

"I think the wall is a problem and I have discussed this with [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis with a wall snaking through the West Bank."

On the settlements, Abbas said: "Nothing less than a full [Israeli] settlement freeze will do because nothing less than a full settlement freeze will work. For the sake of peace and for the sake of future Palestinian and Israeli generations, all settlement activity must be stopped now and the [Israeli separation] wall must come down."

Bush agreed that the settlements are an important issue, but he stressed that the overriding issue is security, and that terror must be halted before other issues can be resolved.

The two men said they also discussed the problem of Israel continuing to hold Palestinian prisoners. Bush said the issue is valid, but not black and white. He said Israel must be careful about which Palestinians it releases from custody and which it keeps behind bars.

"On the [Palestinian] prisoners, I think it is very important to have a frank discussion on the prisoners. We'll look at the prisoner issue on a case by case basis. Surely, nobody wants to let a cold-blooded killer out of prison, that would help derail the process."

Bush said all the Israeli concessions being sought by Abbas involve what he called "difficult issues." But he noted that such issues were never the subject of negotiations before now, and he attributed the new atmosphere to the trustworthiness of Abbas himself.

Abbas noted that his government has achieved what Israel and its strong military have failed to do: Reduce violence against Israelis. Bush hailed that as the linchpin of making further progress in the talks.

"The more progress there's made on terror, the more progress there'll be made on difficult issues," he said.

Bush also announced that he is sending U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans to the Palestinian territories to develop recommendations on how to develop the region economically. Their focus, he said, will be on jobs for Palestinians.

Abbas thanked Bush for the recent U.S. government bequest of $20 million in aid to the Palestinians, and for what he called the American's "relentless efforts" in support of the "road map" peace plan.

This was not the first time Bush has used the idea of improved economic conditions to foster peace in the Middle East. About two months ago, he proposed the establishment of a free-trade zone in the region over the next 10 years.