Abbas Visits Washington, Seeks U.S. Assistance

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is in Washington for the first time since winning January's election. He meets with President Bush at the White House Thursday. The Palestinian leader is seeking direct aid and a commitment from Washington to revitalize the peace process with Israel.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is in Washington for the first time since winning January's election. He'll make the rounds on Capitol Hill today before a meeting tomorrow at the White House. The Palestinian leader is seeking direct aid and a commitment from Washington to revitalize the peace process with Israel. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Though the Bush administration has been promising the Palestinian Authority aid, a skeptical Congress kept tight restrictions on the $250 million approved so far this year. Edward Abington, a Washington-based consultant for the Palestinian Authority, says Abbas will urge lawmakers to show more confidence in Palestinian reform efforts.

Mr. EDWARD ABINGTON (Palestinian Authority Consultant): The Palestinian Authority needs to be shown to be delivering things to the Palestinian people. And US assistance currently goes to third parties, either to US contractors or to NGOs and they get the credit for it, not the Palestinian Authority.

KELEMEN: Abbas has a bigger goal on this trip, according to Abington: to get the Bush administration to think beyond Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip in mid-August.

Mr. ABINGTON: The Palestinians really want to know what happens the day after Gaza disengagement takes place. How does the US persuade the Israelis to return to negotiations? How does it revitalize the process? Their concern is that Gaza first may be Gaza last.

KELEMEN: Yesterday, before Abbas arrived in Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a pro-Israel lobbying group here that he thinks his Gaza disengagement plan can usher in a new era of trust with the Palestinians. But he also made clear that Abbas must dismantle terrorist groups before there's any progress on the so-called road map to peace.

Prime Minister ARIEL SHARON (Israel): We are willing to help Chairman Abbas as much as we can as long as we do not risk our security. That is the red line.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: Abbas has resisted US and Israeli demands to dismantle groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, arguing that that could provoke a civil war in the Palestinian territories. Instead, the new Palestinian leader has sought to persuade hard-liners to refrain from attacks on Israel while he pursues a revival of peace talks. For their part, US officials have kept to their script, calling on Abbas to end terrorism and reform the Palestinian Authority. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reminded the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee this week why President Bush never met Abbas' predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (US State Department): There were those who ridiculed this principled decision as if the refusal to negotiate with a man who aided and abetted terrorism somehow revealed a lack of concern for peace. America and Israel had tried before to gain peace where democracy did not exist, and we are not going down that road again.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

KELEMEN: Abington, the former State Department official who advises the Palestinians, argues that democratic reform must go hand in hand with an end to Israel's occupation, and he says Abbas will have a message for President Bush.

Mr. ABINGTON: The time for a two-state solution is running out. The Israelis have embarked on a massive expansion of settlements on the West Bank, including separating east Jerusalem from the West Bank. And I think that Abbas hopes to make the president understand the urgency of the situation.

KELEMEN: Bush administration officials have expressed concern about Israel's plans to build in an area that would link its West Bank settlements to east Jerusalem. Secretary Rice reminded Israel this week not to jeopardize what she called the true viability of a Palestinian state. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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