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By DEB RIECHMANN
President Bush on Wednesday called embattled Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas a "man of courage" for trying to revive Mideast peace talks despite a continued political stalemate with Hamas militants.
On the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly meeting, Bush tried to breathe new life into negotiations to resolve the long-running conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Supporting the moderate Abbas was Bush’s final undertaking before returning to Washington.
"In order to achieve this vision, there must be leaders willing to speak out and act on behalf of people who yearn for peace, and you are such a leader, Mr. President," Bush said after his 40-minute meeting with Abbas at a New York hotel. "I can’t thank you enough for the courage you have shown."
Israel wants to reopen a serious dialogue with Abbas and work with him to establish a Palestinian state. But Abbas has been in a weakened position since January when Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, won the Palestinian elections.
Abbas retains his position as president but he is caught between Hamas and the West, which considers Hamas a terrorist group and refuses to underwrite it with vital international aid. Abbas has tried to persuade Hamas leaders to moderate their anti-Israel policies and join with his Fatah Party in a coalition government, but the United States and Israel are leery of the plan.
"We look forward to your support and your help and your aid because we are in dire need for your help and support," Abbas said to an audience that included Bush and TV viewers. "Mr. President, we will always be faithful and truthful to peace and we will not disappoint you."
While Bush said Tuesday in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly that he views achieving Mideast peace as one of his presidency’s "great objectives," he realizes it’s an uphill battle.
"He’s well aware of the fact that conditions may, in the end, not exist to make it possible," deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams told reporters. "But he wants it understood that his interest, his commitment, his view that the establishment of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state is very, very much in the interest of Palestinians and Israelis alike — none of that has changed."
Prospects for a return to active peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have looked dim this year, partly because the political upheaval in both governments kept leaders’ attention focused inward.
Israel has new leadership too following Ariel Sharon’s sudden massive stroke. The new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is on the defensive at home because of widespread dissatisfaction with the conduct and outcome of Israel’s summer war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
Still, the Bush administration is focusing fresh attention on the Israel-Palestinian question as a foundation for initiatives in other areas of the Mideast.
Arab nations, including the few moderate states that are key to U.S. goals in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, view improving the Palestinians’ lot as essential. The festering grievances of the stateless Palestinians feed unrest and radicalism elsewhere.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is likely to travel to friendly Mideast nations next month, her first visit since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire ended the monthlong cross-border war in Lebanon. She met with moderate Arab nations Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting.
Hamas has given no sign that it will meet international demands that would resolve the stalemate with Abbas and allow aid to flow: Renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by agreements made by the previous secular Palestinian leadership.
Rice suggested to reporters that Hamas risks losing political traction among its own supporters as a result.
"It has been difficult for the Hamas-led government to actually deliver on its promises of a better life," Rice said.
Diplomats from the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations met Wednesday to take stock of the Mideast peace process. The group is the would-be shepherd for a U.S.-backed peace plan that would eventually establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In a statement, the group welcomed the prospect of a meeting between Abbas and Olmert and welcomed Abbas’ efforts to form a unified national government.
The group said it hopes any Palestinian national unity government would reflect the group’s principles. European diplomats said that language could allow wiggle room for Hamas to moderate its position without taking the dramatic step of fully recognizing Israel, but U.S. officials disputed that.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press