SPOKESMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: President Bush extended warm words and $50 million in direct aid to President Mahmoud Abbas, who was making his first visit to the White House as the top Palestinian leader.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We will stand with you, Mr. President, as you combat corruptions, reform the Palestinian security services and your justice system and revive your economy. Mr. President, you have made a new start on a difficult journey requiring courage and leadership each day, and we will take that journey together.
TERENCE SMITH: Today's meeting came at a critical point in efforts to forge peace between the two sides. Israel is preparing to pull its troops and settlers out of Gaza this summer. The reception Abbas received was in stark contrast to the cold shoulder the Bush administration gave to the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
Abbas' election in January, after Arafat's death, brought hope that the internationally- brokered peace process, known as the roadmap, could be revived and the cycle of violence broken. In February, in a summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to a ceasefire. President Abbas also reached an agreement with the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, to curb the violence against Israeli forces and settlers. He has done little, however, to dismantle the militant networks, as the Israelis and the Bush administration have demanded.
For their part, the Israelis have released several hundred Palestinian prisoners and decided unilaterally to remove twenty-one Israeli settlements from Gaza, plus four from the occupied West Bank. Abbas was preceded this week in Washington by Sharon, who promised cooperation with the Palestinians, but demanded that they take stronger security measures.
Today, Abbas said he supports the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, yet remains skeptical that Israel will stop expanding other settlements and halt construction of a security wall on Palestinian territory.
MAHMOUD ABBAS: We stress that democracy cannot flourish under occupation and in the absence of freedom. These settlement activities, in addition to undermining President Bush's vision in establishing a Palestinian and contiguous state, that it is a viable state that can live side by side by the state of Israel, it also contributes to the feeling of frustration and despair, and the loss of hope. Stopping this is one of the requirements of the roadmap.
TERENCE SMITH: President Bush strongly repeated administration demands that Israel stop expanding settlements.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: When you say you're going to accept the roadmap, you accept the roadmap. And part of the obligations of the roadmap is not the expansion of settlements. And we continue to remind our friends, the Israelis, about their obligations under the roadmap, just like we remind President Abbas about obligations under the roadmap that the Palestinians have accepted. So nothing's changed.
TERENCE SMITH: When he returns home, Abbas and his Fatah Party are set to face a parliamentary challenge from the Hamas Party. Hamas candidates have made an impressive showing in three rounds of local elections in Palestinian territories.
TERENCE SMITH: Now an official view of today's meeting between the two presidents. We get that from Nasser Al-Kidwa, foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Minister, welcome.
NASSER AL-KIDWA: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: How did this morning's meeting go from the Palestinian point of view?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: We believe it was good meeting. It was warm and I think it reflected a good personal relationship between both presidents, President Bush and President Abbas, and I think the statement made by the president later on indicated precisely that.
TERENCE SMITH: You spent 25 minutes with the president before the Rose Garden press conference and then there was a lunch for, what, an hour or so afterwards?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: Yes. That's correct.
TERENCE SMITH: What was the most important thing to come out of this from your perspective?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: I think the frank way of discussion. We discussed almost everything related to the Palestinian situation, Palestinian intentions, the conflict itself, the peace process, Gaza, what's after Gaza, and all these things, important things for us in a special way.
TERENCE SMITH: Then the president came out and made some fairly forthright statements, as we just saw, in the Rose Garden. Were those satisfactory from your point of view?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: Indeed, indeed. This is probably the most important comprehensive statement made by President Bush on the Middle East. It contains very important elements including, for instance, the call that any change in the 1949 armistice line should take place only through mutual agreement; this is very important because we believe that the two-state solution can only be achieved on the basis of that line.
TERENCE SMITH: What is the significance to you of the president's decision to grant $50 million in aid directly to the Palestinian Authority, as opposed to routing it through non-governmental organizations, which is the route that Congress has preferred?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: This is of course not new money; this is part of the supplement that was adopted by the Congress, but what's new here, as you just said, is the fact that it is directed through the Palestinian Authority and this, of course, is very important to us because it reflects new confidence in the way the Palestinian Authority is dealing with international aid and assistance, and it would encourage others to do the same. It's important in terms of the significant significance of the step, if you wish.
TERENCE SMITH: Secretary (Condoleezza) Rice said on Monday that -- Secretary of State Rice said on Monday that Palestinian terrorist groups must actually be dismantled before there can be a return to the so-called roadmap for peace. Is that being done?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: No, it is not -- it is not being done. Many other steps have been done, including the restructuring of the security apparatus; the unification of the security organizations; new laws; new regulations; retirement; new blood -- many such steps. However, the issue of dealing with the organizations themselves is a different matter. We are trying also at the same time the political path. I think it's succeeding. Now we do have a comprehensive agreement on quieting down the situation.
The compliance was very reasonable. And we will be trying to take it another level in the future whereby all Palestinian factions would agree on certain principles, including the prohibition of targeting civilians in Israel, for instance. If we succeed in doing that, then we will have taken the whole situation to a different level. We will have succeeded in transforming those organizations into legitimate political parties, something that's in the interest of the Palestinian side as well as the region as a whole, I would say.
TERENCE SMITH: Did President Bush in the private talks urge you to do that and more in that direction?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: I think what's important in this regard is the results and the results are there; violence is down tremendously -- not only as a result of what we have been doing but also, and that's important, as a result of Israel's acceptance.
Finally, at Sharm el Sheik acceptance of declaring an end of all military attacks against Palestinians; that opened the door for us to succeed with other factions in reaching the agreement that I was talking about.
TERENCE SMITH: What about on the settlement issue? This is a longstanding grievance from the Palestinian point of view, a very important political element from the Israeli point of view. What was discussed? What came out of that that moved that forward at all?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: The new thing is the reiteration of the American position on the necessity for complete cessation of settlement activities; that's very important, and of course, the importance, the additional importance - is the fact that this comes as part of a more comprehensive position - this is also important - settlements for us is a basic issue - settlements are illegal under international law, the continuation of which make the two-state solution almost impossible or at least very difficult to achieve.
It doesn't make sense for Israel to continue with its settlement activities, with the construction of the wall, while at the same time trying to reach peace with its neighbor, that's the Palestinian side, so we must bring this to an end.
TERENCE SMITH: The Israelis have committed themselves unilaterally to withdraw from the settlements in Gaza and some settlements in the West Bank. What can the Palestinian side do and what do you intend to do to facilitate that process and make it a peaceful one?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: We don't want only to facilitate it; we want to make it a success, because a successful withdrawal from Gaza is in our interest. We want to coordinate and to cooperate with the Israelis to achieve that. But for this to happen we need information; we need a clear understanding with the Israeli side on the political context of that.
Unfortunately until now we don't know enough; we don't know about the southern sector, for instance, whether the Israelis intend to stay there or not. If they do, that would be a mistake. We don't know --
TERENCE SMITH: In the southern sector of --
NASSER AL-KIDWA: Of Gaza. We don't know about the seaport, about the airport, about the international gateways. And then we don't know more importantly the relationship between Gaza and the West Bank; that's why we stress the importance of withdrawals in the West Bank up to pre-September 2000 position, something that the president also called for in his statement today.
TERENCE SMITH: And do you expect President Bush to press the Israelis on some of these issues?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: I certainly hope so. I believe that it's going to be extremely difficult for the Israeli side to ignore such a clear and forceful call by the president as the one he did today.
TERENCE SMITH: In an article in the Wall Street Journal today President Abbas said that the Gaza withdrawal is only a mask for an expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Did President Bush say anything today about that to change your view?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: Well, to tell you the truth, I didn't read what was written in the New York Times today. I doubt very much that the president said something like that, He probably said that the disengagement in Gaza we had some doubts about; probably we thought that it would be a mask, screen for strengthening the Israeli presence in the West Bank.
But what we are saying clearly now that we can make this a success, we should try to make it a success, but we also say that this should fit within the roadmap, we should move immediately after to implement the roadmap, and more importantly, before and after the withdrawal from Gaza, we must also implement Sharm el Sheik understanding including withdrawals from populated areas back to pre-September 2000 positions.
TERENCE SMITH: What's your level of confidence that you can move forward on those issues; that you can get back to the process spelled out in the road map?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: We are hopeful; we are not crazily hopeful, but we are looking to the future in hope. We think that we can do it, especially if the United States and other members of the international community lend us a hand and obviously this is happening. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Sharon and the Israeli Government will also be ready to do the same, and if they do, then we'll be able to move forward together.
TERENCE SMITH: And how promising a moment from your perspective is this for that sort of thing? You've been involved in this for a long time. Is this more promising than many or any?
NASSER AL-KIDWA: I don't want to be over optimistic but yes, I cay say that it is a little bit more promising than previous occasions. Here you have the president of the superpower of the world comes clearly with a clear positions that indicates clearly U.S. policy with regard to the peace process and the results of this process. This is something that we have been missing in the past, and I hope that this will provide the reasonable basis for the two sides to move forward.
TERENCE SMITH: Foreign Minister Al-Kidwa, thank you very much for joining us.
NASSER AL-KIDWA: Thank you.