Bush pledges $50 million to Palestinian Authority
U.S.-Palestinian leaders hold White House talks
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday pledged $50 million in direct aid to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the first White House talks in five years between U.S. and Palestinian leaders.
Bush said the aid is meant "to help ensure that the Gaza disengagement is a success." Israel plans to withdraw from that region this summer.
The money will be used for new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza, "where poverty and unemployment are very high," Bush said during a post-meeting news conference.
It's the first direct aid the United States has given to the Palestinian Authority. Previous donations have gone through non-governmental organizations.
In addition, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be dispatched to Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the Israeli pullout, Bush said.
Abbas thanked Bush for his support and said Israeli-Palestinian violence was at its "lowest level in four years."
"We emphasized our determination to maintain and preserve this calm," Abbas said through a translator. "The Palestinian Authority exerts a great deal of effort in reforming our security organizations."
On Wednesday, Abbas attended a working dinner with Rice and, before traveling to Washington, he met with Jordan's King Abdullah II to coordinate efforts to restart an international peace plan known as the "road map."
That plan is sponsored by the so-called Mideast Quartet of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.
Bush had refused to meet with Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, accusing him of supporting terrorism. After Arafat's death in November, U.S. officials welcomed Abbas' election as a chance to renew the Middle East peace process.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also reached out to Abbas. During peace talks in Egypt on February 8, the two leaders announced a truce. Palestinian militants then declared a temporary cease-fire March 17.
Now, however, the truce has been threatened by Palestinian militants in Gaza who are angry over Israeli military moves in the occupied West Bank.
Sharon was in Washington on Tuesday and during a speech praised Abbas' "strategic decision to condemn violence and terrorism."
"But his statements must be translated into real actions on the ground," Sharon told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Abbas was also expected to urge the United States to pressure Israel to complete its promised withdrawal this summer from Gaza and several West Bank settlements. The planned withdrawal has angered many Israelis.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have complained that even though Israel will pull out of Gaza, its grip on the West Bank has strengthened.
Abbas said he hopes that Bush will give him a letter assuring him of U.S. support on a variety of issues after their meeting at the White House.
With those assurances, "we will be in a position to say to the Palestinian people that the American president is committed, and here is the proof," Abbas said.
Abbas criticized Israel for not doing more on the issue of Palestinian political prisoners. Israel holds about 11,000 prisoners, all of whom should be released, Abbas said.
Still, Abbas said he hopes to build a trusting relationship with Sharon, a feat that eluded Arafat. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday Bush and Abbas will discuss "a range of issues," including Sharon's disengagement plan.
Bush will also talk about "the challenges that all parties have as we move forward on his two-state vision," McClellan said.
He said it is "important that [Abbas] continue to move forward to dismantle terrorist networks and organizations."
Sharon: 'We are ready to do more'
Saying Israel wants to continue to work with Abbas, Sharon said Tuesday he will ask his government to free 400 more Palestinians from prison.
He said Abbas "can be a partner in implementing the road map" and that Israel intends "to help Chairman Abbas as much as we can as long as we don't risk our security. That is the red line." Sharon said Israel has released 500 Palestinians. "We are ready to do more," he said.
Sharon vowed that his plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from Gaza and parts of the West Bank will proceed according to plan.
Sharon said he had paid "a heavy political price" for pushing the plan.
Bush met previously with Abbas in 2003, when he served as the first Palestinian prime minister. As prime minister, Abbas signed the road map and then quit after four months in office, accusing Arafat of undermining his authority.
After Arafat's death, Abbas was elected to replace him as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Then, Arafat's Fatah movement picked Abbas to be its candidate in the race for Palestinian Authority president, which he won in January.
Now a dispute between Abbas and the Palestinian legislature has delayed passage of a new election law, which could in turn delay the parliamentary election set for July 17.
Abbas' political fortunes could be bolstered by the outcome of his talks in Washington. He is locked in a political struggle with Hamas, a militant group labeled a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States that made gains in municipal elections this month.
Hamas announced in March it would participate in the elections -- a move supported by Abbas as an effort to promote stability.