WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush made a direct appeal Tuesday to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to clamp down on terror attacks on Israel while assuring the new leader that the United States remains committed to establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.
It was Bush's first contact with Abbas, whose appointment culminated a presidential boycott of Yasser Arafat, whose leadership of the Palestinians has been questioned by the president as both ineffective and entwined in terror attacks on Israel.
While Arafat never has been invited to the White House, a break by Bush from the attention lavished on him by past presidents, Abbas is expected to be asked to see the president in Washington sometime in the months ahead.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "reiterated his commitment to the security of the state of Israel" and said he looked forward to an eventual meeting with Abbas, known also as Abu Mazen.
"Abu Mazen told the President he was committed to reform, to peace and to ending all acts of terror," Fleischer said.
In the 15-minute conversation, Bush balanced his appeal for action against terror with an assurance he also wanted Israel to take "concrete steps" to come to terms with the Palestinians.
Bush intervened after five suicide attacks within 48 hours in Israel that endangered the U.S.-backed peace process.
Bush had planned to meet Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but Sharon postponed the visit because of the new outbreak of violence. The president told Sharon on the phone Tuesday that he understood the reasons he canceled his visit to Washington, Fleischer said. He offered condolences to the people of Israel for the recent attacks and told Sharon that he was looking forward to a rescheduled meeting.
"The president talked about the importance of remaining committed to the peace process in the Middle East - of working on the road map," Fleischer said. "He told the prime minister that he believes Abu Mazen is a reformer."
The "road map" peace plan is a three-stage prescription for ending violence and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.
Abbas has accepted the plan, although Sharon has voiced reservations with some of its terms, including a freeze on settlements.
Fleischer described the phone conversation "friendly and hopeful." He said that while the two did not talk specifics, the president reiterated his commitment to the security of Israel and his vision for two states living side-by-side.
He said Abbas "told the president he is committed to reform to peace and to ending all acts of terror."
Fleischer said that Bush looked forward to more phone calls with Abbas, although no date has been set.
U.S. officials say the rash of deadly terror attacks on Israel has not shaken Bush's confidence in Abbas as a leader who will strive to get violence under control. Bush believes that Abbas "understands that the future success and health and welfare of the Palestinian people begins with attacking those who violently seek to derail the peace," Fleischer said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he had "seen nothing to put in doubt his commitment," although he urged Abbas to take immediate and decisive action to eradicate the terrorism infrastructure.
Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Sunday, striving to sustain Bush's vision of two states, one Jewish the other Palestinian, living side by side in peace.
The Bush administration is counting on Abbas to lead the Palestinians into democracy while also making a strong effort to end terror attacks on Israel.
The United States wants Israel to curb tough restrictions on Palestinian movement and to freeze settlement activity in disputed lands.
A former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, Edward S. Walker, said the terrorists would probably undermine the peace plan.
"The only way to deal with these guys is for the Palestinian and Israeli security authorities to get together and say we have had enough," Walker said in an interview.
The bloodletting was no surprise. Many past U.S. mediation efforts since the Arabs fought Israel to a standoff in the 1973 Yom Kippur war have inspired violence.
Sharon has said that he would discuss his reservations about the peace "road map" with Bush, taking the president up on an offer last spring to "welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians on this document." Abbas accepted the road map, but he said he had reservations, too.
Abbas he held inconclusive talks Saturday night with Sharon and they agreed to meet again, keeping open the one meaningful channel for negotiations.
Sharon in the meantime had said rolling up Jewish settlements was not on the horizon. And Abbas, in their talks, said Israel would have to implement the road map as a condition for the Palestinian leader strengthening security.
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