WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) made a direct appeal Tuesday to new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) to clamp down on terror attacks against Israel while also reassuring Abbas that the United States still intends to help create a Palestinian state in 2005.
The telephone call was Bush's first contact with Abbas, whose appointment followed a presidential boycott of Yasser Arafat (search) and gave the Bush administration a way to try to bypass the longtime head of the Palestinian movement.
In an Arab television interview, however, Abbas reaffirmed his support for Arafat as the Palestinians' legitimate leader and accused Israel of trying to make Arafat a scapegoat.
From the outset, Bush dismissed Arafat as both ineffective and involved in terror. While Bush never invited Arafat to the White House, in contrast to the attention lavished on the Palestinian by Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, Abbas is expected to be asked to see Bush in Washington in the months ahead.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that in their 15-minute conversation, 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.
The president followed up by calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), who postponed a White House visit because of a rash of Palestinian terror attacks that killed 12 Israelis over 48 hours.
The visit is expected to be rescheduled. In the meantime, Sharon is dispatching his chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, to Washington for talks on Wednesday.
Bush "will not be deterred by the current terrorist bombings," his spokesman said. "He understands it will present a slowdown, a delay in this meeting, a bump on the road, but it will not deter him because he thinks there is no other choice."
Administration officials have held out the possibility that Bush will soon visit the region, perhaps at the conclusion of a trip to Russia and to a Group of Eight summit in France early next month. Details have not been firmed up, but speculation has focused on the Gulf states of Kuwait or Qatar.
Fleischer sidestepped a question on whether Bush might see Sharon -- and presumably Abbas as well -- as part of that trip. Short of going to Israel, which seemed unlikely, a meeting in Geneva -- close to the economic summit in Evian, France -- was viewed as one possibility.
Bush balanced his appeal to Abbas for action against terror with an assurance he also wanted Israel to take "concrete steps" to come to terms with the Palestinians.
Bush told Sharon he understood the Israeli leader's reasons for postponing a visit to Washington that had been planned for Tuesday, Fleischer said. He offered condolences to the people of Israel for the weekend attacks and told Sharon that he was looking forward to a rescheduled meeting, the spokesman said.
Even before the latest Palestinian suicide bombings, Sharon hesitated to accept a so-called road map to a settlement with the Palestinians. It would require a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the dismantling of some outposts along with giving the Palestinians a state on land held by Israel for 36 years. Simultaneously, the road map would require strong efforts by Palestinian leaders to end 32 months of violence and to develop a more democratic system.
The bombings have only hardened Sharon's position.
But Fleischer, in behalf of Bush, questioned the prime minister's unwillingness to negotiate until the Palestinian attacks are halted.
"The president has always said that what's important is that 100 percent effort be made by the Palestinian Authority to fight the violence and to stop the terrorists," the spokesman said.
"The problem is, if you set a standard of 100 percent success, one or two individual terrorists then can hijack the peace process and put themselves in a position where they decide whether or not the peace process shall go forward or not, because they attack."
Abbas, meanwhile, declared on the Arab satellite station al-Arabiya that he had told Sharon last Saturday night that the Palestinians would not begin implementing the road map until Israel has accepted it. Pressured by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Abbas accepted the plan this month.
"There is no way to end occupation or (suicide) operations except putting the road map on the table and starting to implement it step-by-step," Abbas said.
He also defended Arafat, his patron for decades, as innocent of Israeli accusations that he was involved in terror.
"Yasser Arafat is innocent of all these allegations," Abbas told his Arab audience. "We say that Yasser Arafat is the legitimate leader who was elected to lead our way, and he is the president of Palestine."
Fleischer described Bush's conversation with Sharon as friendly and hopeful. The spokesman also conveyed the impression that the president pressed Sharon to go along with the plan for a settlement that has the endorsement of the Bush administration, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
It is designed to end 32 months of violence and, if accepted, commits Israel and the Palestinians to stop fighting.
"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."