"Time is our greatest enemy"

Bush rebuffs Abbas on his appeal for help in reviving the U.S.-led "road map" to peace with Israel.

Published May 27, 2005 2:09PM (EDT)

President Bush rebuffed an appeal from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas Thursday for a swift revival of peace negotiations and the rapid creation of a Palestinian state after Israel pulls out of the Gaza Strip. On his first visit to the White House since he was elected in January, the Palestinian president told a joint press conference with Bush: "It is time for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to end. Time is becoming our greatest enemy. We should end this conflict before it's too late."

Abbas added: "We should [after the Gaza pullout] immediately move to permanent-status negotiations to deal with the issue of East Jerusalem, the capital of the future state of Palestine, and the issues of refugees, borders and water."

Bush said, "We have reached a moment of hope" and "a great achievement of history is within reach: the creation of a peaceful democratic Palestinian state." He added: "I believe the Palestinian people are fully capable of justly governing themselves in peace with their neighbors. I believe the interests of the Israeli people would be served by a peaceful Palestinian state. And I believe now is the time for all parties in this conflict to move beyond old grievances and act forcefully in the cause of peace."

Bush added: "With concrete actions by the United States, the Palestinians, Israel and other nations, we can transform this opportunity into real momentum."

But while Bush praised Mr Abbas as a "man of courage" and applauded his "rejection of terrorism," he signaled that, like the Israeli government, he sees no urgency to return to the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan. "The imminent Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank presents an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a return to the road map," he said.

Bush has previously said that he envisages the creation of a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office in January 2009.

Thursday, he indicated that before there is movement on other issues, the Palestinian leadership will be judged by how it handles the governance of the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal in the autumn.

Abbas said he had told Bush that the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the construction of the vast steel and concrete barrier through the territory were undermining the prospects of creating a viable Palestinian state as well as contributing to frustration and despair among ordinary Palestinians. "We stress that democracy cannot flourish under occupation and in the absence of freedom," said Abbas.

Bush called for Israel to alleviate Palestinian suffering, and he reminded Ariel Sharon's government of its road-map obligations to cease the relentless expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes road-map obligations or prejudices final-status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Therefore Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion," said Bush.

"The barrier being erected by Israel as part of its security effort must be a security rather than a political barrier, and its route should take into account, consistent with security needs, its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities."

Bush has given similar warnings in the past, but they have done little to stop continued settlement construction. And Sharon has failed to fulfill commitments to the U.S. president to dismantle Jewish outposts in the West Bank.

By Chris McGreal

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