Bush, Olmert Offer Backing for Abbas

After a White House meeting with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he is willing to meet with embattled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Both leaders favor Abbas and his Fatah party over rival Hamas.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush met at the White House today with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Both leaders tried to bolster the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. His Fatah party was routed in Gaza by forces from rival party Hamas.

Abbas responded by swearing in an emergency cabinet that excludes Hamas. We'll have a report from the region in a few minutes. First, at the White House, President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert pledged their support for the Palestinian leader, yet the president and the prime minister said little publicly about how they'll deal with Hamas.

NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: President Bush said this was really perfect timing for his talks with the Israeli prime minister as they began their meeting.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This visit comes obviously during a period of great concern for the world about what's taking place in Gaza and so it's a timely visit.

GREENE: What's taking place in Gaza is a transition. Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, has forcibly taken charge of a strip of land that's home to 1.5 million Palestinians.

As a result, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formed an emergency government, which has taken control of the West Bank. Since Hamas has no role in the new government, President Bush said this may be a window to push for peace in the region.

Pres. BUSH: It is a great challenge. It's exciting to be in office during this period. It could be, you know, difficult for those of us who'd been given the great honor of serving our countries, but it's an exciting moment.

GREENE: Olmert was sitting next to Mr. Bush. He said he sees opportunity as well.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): This is a very special time. Things have been, lately, very dramatic. I'm sure that many people in the world were astounded by the brutality, the cruelty and the viciousness of the Hamas murderers that killed so many Palestinians in such a way.

GREENE: Olmert said he'd like to meet with President Abbas and begin laying the groundwork for negotiations on a Palestinian state. But there was a more pressing issue: Palestinians in Gaza are crowding at a crossing point into Israel hoping to reach the West Bank.

And in the Oval Office, a reporter asked Olmert if they'll be allowed to pass through Israel.

Prime Minister OLMERT: We have been very, very attentive to the needs of the -humanitarian needs of Gaza and we will continue to provide everything that is necessary in order to meet these humanitarian needs. Israel will not be indifferent to the human suffering in Gaza.

GREENE: The journalist wasn't satisfied and repeated his question about the border. Olmert offered little more.

Prime Minister OLMERT: So, as I say, we will check every single case and we'll see how we can help them and I'm sure that we will help them.

GREENE: President Bush said he sees the events in Gaza as further proof that people are out to dismantle democracies.

Pres. BUSH: It's interesting that extremists attack democracies around the Middle East, whether it be the Iraq democracy, the Lebanese democracy, or a potential Palestinian democracy. What that should say clearly to people all around the world is that we are involved with an ideological conflict. That is a monumental conflict.

GREENE: But if there's a monumental conflict over democracy, how the Palestinian situation fits into it is unclear. Mr. Bush paints Hamas as an extremist group that's against democracy. But last year, when Palestinians went to the polls, they gave Hamas a majority in parliament.

Mr. Bush tiptoed around this issue today. He said President Abbas and his Fatah party are representing, quote, "the Palestinians who believe in peace." And the President played up the role of Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen.

Pres. BUSH: We recognize the president of all the Palestinian people and that's President Abu Mazen. He was elected. He is the president.

GREENE: When they were done talking to reporters, Mr. Bush and Olmert met behind closed doors for several hours. Afterwards, White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked what took place in the meetings. And Snow would only offer this.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): I'm not going to tell you. No. I'm not going to tell you.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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