Seeking to keep his Middle East peace initiative on track, President Bush praised Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Friday as a leader of vision and courage and promised to help his fragile new Cabinet with both economic assistance and diplomatic leverage on Israel.
In meeting with Abbas at the White House, Bush accorded him an honor he has never extended to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority's president. The Oval Office talks and working lunch were the first of two crucial meetings on the peace process over a five-day period. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is scheduled to visit Tuesday.
After the session, Bush repeatedly made it clear that Abbas, who assumed his post in April after U.S. pressure to introduce new leadership, is a Palestinian with whom he enjoys doing business.
"To break through old hatreds and barriers to peace, the Middle East needs leaders of vision and courage and determination to serve the interests of their people. Mr. Abbas is the first Palestinian prime minister, and he is proving to be such a leader," Bush told reporters.
Bush also praised Abbas' "great Cabinet," specifically citing the new finance minister, who brought reforms and accountability into the Palestinian budget, and the security chief in charge of ending terrorism. He called the latter, Mohammed Dahlan, a "good, solid leader."
"I gained confidence in them because they're people who do what they say," Bush said at a joint news conference with Abbas in the Rose Garden.
The president also addressed key obstacles in the peace process in language that signaled U.S. concerns shared with the Palestinians.
In an unusual public rebuke, Bush criticized Israel's construction of a controversial new "separation wall" between Israel and the West Bank and pledged to bring it up with Sharon during the Israeli leader's visit. The wall is a concrete barrier in some areas and a wire fence in others.
"I think the wall is a problem," Bush said. "It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank. And I will continue to discuss this issue very clearly with the prime minister."
Standing beside the president, Abbas said that "all settlement activities must be stopped" and that "the wall must come down."
Bush also announced the creation of the Joint Palestine Economic Development Group and said he would send Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans to the Middle East this fall to assess steps needed to build a "solid economic foundation" for a sovereign Palestinian state.
"We must improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians," Bush said.
The president said he and Abbas also discussed the "limits on freedom of movement" of Palestinians and the "need to reduce" the 160 Israeli checkpoints and barriers through which Palestinians must pass both inside their territory and in crossing into Israel.
But Bush rejected Palestinian entreaties for the U.S. to pressure Israel to release most of the 6,000 to 8,000 detainees and prisoners it holds. Israel has indicated it will free between 400 and 500, which Abbas said is not enough. Many of those held have not been charged with any crime.
Palestinians warn that Israel's failure to free thousands of Palestinian prisoners will undermine the cease-fire struck among the major militant factions. Prisoner release is not a step specifically required by the U.S.-backed peace initiative, but Palestinians consider it a crucial test of Israeli intentions.
Bush said the releases should rely on a case-by-case review. "It doesn't make any sense if you've got somebody who is bent upon destroying lives and killing people in prison; if you were to let them out, it would make it harder to achieve the peace we all want," Bush told reporters.
Abbas pressed the United States, during talks and at the news conference, to prod Israel into freezing the building of Jewish settlements that have encroached on Palestinian land. "Nothing less than a full settlement freeze will do because nothing less than a full settlement freeze will work," he told reporters.
But Bush made it clear that the United States would not push Israel to take action on key issues, including freezing settlements, unless the Palestinians followed through on confronting and dismantling extremist groups.
"I'm going to tell you point-blank that we must make sure that any terrorist activity is rooted out in order for us to be able to deal with these big issues," Bush said. "The more progress there's made on terror, the more progress there'll be on difficult issues."
The Abbas visit, the first by such a senior Palestinian leader since Bush took office, came as Israel announced it would grant 8,500 more work permits to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Bethlehem and Kalkilya and pull troops out of two more West Bank cities. Israeli and Palestinian security officials will meet next week to determine which cities.
The army also removed three of the West Bank's military checkpoints, Sharon's office said Friday.
With peace talks losing steam in an atmosphere of mutual distrust, Sharon was widely expected to make some concessions as a gesture of good faith before traveling to Washington. But on the trickiest questions, Sharon remained circumspect Friday.
As Abbas pressed for peace in Washington, violence simmered back home. An Israeli soldier fatally shot a 4-year-old at an Israeli checkpoint in the northern West Bank. The boy's two sisters, ages 6 and 7, were wounded.
The children were inside a car awaiting inspection when a machine gun mounted onto a tank opened fire. A photographer at the scene counted 17 bullet holes in the vehicle, Associated Press reported.
The Israeli army said the attack was an accident and expressed its regret.
Times staff writer Megan K. Stack in Jerusalem contributed to this report.