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Bush presses Abbas to step up efforts against terrorism

WASHINGTON—President Bush politely urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to do more to crack down on terrorist attacks against Israel, in order to move forward long-stalled Middle East peace negotiations.

But Bush acknowledged that the negotiations have slowed to the point that he's unlikely to reach his goal of an independent Palestinian state before he leaves office in 2009.

"I can't tell you when it's going to happen," Bush said. "And the reason I can't is because there will be moments of progress, and there will be moments of setback. The key is to keep moving forward, is to have partners in peace to move forward."

Bush told Abbas that the best way to proceed is by "confronting the threat that armed gangs pose to a genuinely democratic Palestine" and to a "lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians."

Bush said he'd name a new senior U.S. security coordinator in the region to help Abbas and the Palestinian Authority fulfill their responsibility under the so-called "road map" peace plan to end terrorist attacks, dismantle terrorist infrastructure and maintain law and order.

Abbas, who was elected last January, said his government was doing what it could to rein in terrorism and called on Bush to push Israel to end its "policies of occupation" and policies of "settlement construction ... that undermine your vision toward two states."

"Peace and security cannot be guaranteed by the construction of walls, by the erection of checkpoints and the confiscation of land, but rather by the recognition of rights," Abbas said.

Bush also repeated his insistence that Israel fulfill its road-map obligations by halting the expansion of Jewish settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, between Israel and Jordan, and removing any unauthorized posts. He warned Israel not to let a wall being built to protect Israel from Palestinian attacks become "a political barrier."

Administration officials and others from a group called the Quartet—made up of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union—have been working for months to get Israeli and Palestinian officials back on the road-map plan.

The plan had timetables and initially called for an independent Palestinian state by 2005. But Bush balked at timetables Thursday, leading some Middle East analysts to question his commitment to the peace process.

"The calendar no longer binds him," said Geoffrey Aronson, the research director for the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group. "One should be concerned whether the substantive aspect of all of this binds him as well."

Aronson said Bush had passed up an opportunity to press for a renewed timeline and to push Abbas to exclude the militant group Hamas from Palestinian elections in December and January.

Haim Malka, an analyst for the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bush's apparent reluctance to speak out against Hamas was a sign of his confidence in Abbas' belief that the group could be incorporated into a democratic Palestinian political structure.

"They've given Abbas the benefit of the doubt," Malka said. "They have faith in his strategy, which is the only strategy."

The road-map plan, which Bush unveiled in the White House Rose Garden two years ago, has three stages.

The first calls for Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a series of confidence-building measures that include a Palestinian crackdown on terrorist groups and an Israeli freeze on settlements.

Phase two centers on creating a Palestinian state with provisional borders and an elected government.

The third and thorniest phase would address conflicting claims to Jerusalem, the borders of an independent Palestinian state and the issue of whether millions of Palestinian refugees have the right to return to what's now Israel.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-MIDEAST

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