Bush wants Mideast peace conference

Updated: 2007-07-17 00:43
President Bush will call for an international conference this fall to include Israel, the Palestinian authority and some of their Arab neighbors to help restart Mideast peace talks and will pledge increased aid to the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, The Associated Press has learned.

In this photo released by the Palestinian Authority, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , left, walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to their meeting at Olmert's residence in Jerusalem, Monday, July 16, 2007. Israel will free 250 Palestinian prisoners later this week, following through on a pledge to release the men as part of its strategy to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle against the Hamas militant group, officials said Monday.[AP]

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would lead the peace conference, which would include representatives of Israel and "neighbors in the region," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Bush planned to speak Monday afternoon at the White House about the peace conference and U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Abbas, who controls just the West Bank after the Islamic militant group Hamas gained authority over Gaza in June.

Bush will portray this as "a moment of choice" between two paths for the Palestinian people — one represented by the moderate government led by Abbas and his Fatah faction and that of Hamas.

The official spoke anonymously because the president had not yet given his speech.

The fall conference among Palestinian and Israeli officials and other countries in the region would be a way to prod the peace process. It would be one of the few times that Israelis and Arab leaders have met jointly to work out their differences.

Bush will also call for Israel to remove authorized outposts in Palestinian territory and end settlement expansion, the official said. And he will urge Israel to continue releasing tax revenues to the Palestinian authority.

Bush will pledge additional financial support for the Abbas government, but will not discuss a specific amount in Monday's speech, the official said. Instead, he will await recommendations from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair,

Blair was recently named as special envoy to the region by the "Quartet" of Mideast peace makers — the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia.

That group meets in Portugal on Thursday, at which time Rice and other international negotiators will meet with Blair as he begins his new assignment. White House spokesman Tony Snow said that Bush had discussed his new propsals with Blair.

Bush will talk about Blair's role in his Mideast remarks, the senior administration official said.

The president will also call for an international meeting of "donor" nations to discuss financial ways of helping the Abbas government, the official said.

Bush will tell Abbas that with increased U.S. and international financial support comes an obligation to reach out more to Israel and end incitement, the official said.

A senior administration official earlier said the president would announce aid above the $86 million that the White House already has requested from Congress. That money was to help provide security for Abbas' Fatah faction. The administration also has pledged to contribute $40 million to the United Nations to help the Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip now controlled by Hamas.

After a meeting Monday in Jerusalem between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat talked about Bush's upcoming announcement. "I think it's a clear-cut endgame here. We are talking about President Bush's vision of a two-state solution," said Erekat.

He added that Bush should address "how do you translate this from a vision to a realistic political track? How do you move from a policy of what's possible to a policy of what is needed?"

"In order to restore credibility and integrity to the peace process, the people of this region, Palestinians and Israelis, must start seeing deeds and not merely words," Erekat said.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley said there is now an opportunity "to show the Palestinian people a choice between the kind of violence and chaos under Hamas in Gaza and the prospect, under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, for an effective, democratic Palestinian state that can be on the way toward what we all want, which is a two-state solution — a Palestinian homeland for the Palestinian people."

Five years ago, Bush called for a separate, independent Palestine alongside Israel. He was the first U.S. president to back that notion so fully and publicly. But his administration has taken heavy criticism for letting the peace process drift while conditions worsened for the impoverished Palestinians.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Sunday the administration has not done enough.

"They've had a hands-off attitude for many, many years now. And at a critical juncture, when Abbas was just taking over, when there was an opportunity to really support him, the administration was not doing that," Reed said on CNN's "Late Edition."

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