RAY SUAREZ: When Israel pulled out of Gaza two months ago the end of that 38-year occupation, it looked less like a significant step toward peace and more like another version of the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government had agreed with the Palestinian authority that the settlements should be partially destroyed rather than handed over intact. But it ended up being some settlers themselves who wrecked the things they couldn't carry away before the soldiers came to force them out. And Palestinian mobs burned down buildings that the Israelis had not destroyed, including the synagogues.
And since the Palestinian Authority assumed control over Gaza, there has been an upsurge of violence. Palestinian security forces often appeared overwhelmed amid running clashes with Hamas militants in Gaza and armed gangs connected with the ruling Fatah Party.
The violence has also spread to the West Bank; attacks by Palestinians have killed at least four Israelis. And as many as 20 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory raids by Israeli forces.
A summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Abbas has been shelved twice. The two last met at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt last February when they brokered a cease-fire deal, but the Israelis have demanded that Abbas disarm militant groups and the Palestinians are calling for more freedom of movement in and out of Gaza.
It's against this backdrop that Palestinian President Abbas came to Washington for talks with President Bush. But the American president expressed optimism about the prospects for Palestinian statehood.
He also called on both sides to fulfill their obligations under the so-called road map to peace the two sides agreed upon two years ago.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The way forward must begin by confronting the threat that armed gangs pose to a genuinely democratic Palestine. At the same time Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its road map obligations or prejudice the final status negotiations with regard to Gaza the West Bank and Jerusalem. This means that Israel must remove unauthorized posts and stop settlement expansion.
RAY SUAREZ: I spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier today.
RAY SUAREZ: Mr. President, thanks for joining us. Is the road map still a workable plan? Does it contain the ingredients that will end us with two states living side-by-side in peace?
MAHMOUD ABBAS (Translated): I believe that the road map is the international -- the only international reference that is available now to resolve the Middle East question and the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. It contains everything in order to solve this question right from the beginning to the end including the Palestinians' independent state.
I belive that we are -- after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, we should go back to this plan so that we can implement it to arrive at what President Bush had announced in his initiative to establish the independent Palestinian state, which is viable, contiguous, live side-by-side with the state of Israel.
RAY SUAREZ: The plan involves both sides having expectations of the other side. What is it that you and your government want from Israel?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: We want Israel now at the present time to resolve a number of problems, particularly regarding the Gaza sector and the crossings, in particular, and then the issues that we had basically agreed on at Sharm El Sheik, which are the exits from the cities and release a number of prisoners and those who are wanted and exiled.
This is the beginning so that we will go on and continue directly step-by-step the other issues contained in the road map.
RAY SUAREZ: And the Israelis want from your government certain guarantees about security, certain assurances that violent elements will be controlled. Can you do it?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: The question of security and other issues, and other violations that are taking place are an issue that concerns us primarily more than it does the Israelis. We are concerned that the situation in the Palestinian territories be quiet and all violent acts stop and all the instigation acts end also so that we can create conducive climate for the future and peace.
When we agreed with all the factions for the troops now, that which is being implemented, not 100 percent, I would say but with a high rate of implementation, there are certain violations from the Israelis and from the Palestinians. The second point and now there is another step and that is to stop all assemblances of armed appearances in Gaza sector and in the West Bank.
RAY SUAREZ: The United States for its part says that it will pressure the Israelis about increasing the size and the population of the settlements. But the Israelis so far have continued to build and continued to move population in. Is this an impediment to moving forward?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: This is an issue that we have talked at length about in the past visit. And in this current visit with the American administration, we told them that there must be some credibility to our political work, a continuation of settlements, and the building of the wall and changing the topography of Jerusalem does not give the impression or the hope to the Palestinian citizens that there is a solution that is coming in the future.
Therefore it is imperative that we talk directly with Israeli government to stop these activities. We know that the issue of border and Jerusalem also and other issues will be discussed in the final status negotiations. But let us suppose that all these activities must stop in accordance to the resolutions that have been adopted and that were mentioned also in the road map and the Mitchell report.
We don't come with a new thing that is outside of framework of the international legitimacy. But we are asking the implementation of the legitimacy if we want a true peace and if Israel wants real, true peace, I have to mention here -- remind Mr. Sharon that these activities must stop and we should enter directly to the final set of negotiations, if they wish, officially or unofficially, informally, we don't have any objections. But we should start from now to discuss these issues so that we do not waste time.
RAY SUAREZ: In the next round of Palestinian elections will it be possible to bring Hamas into the process and make it into a regular political party?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: Firstly, when we talk about democracy which we have adopted as a practice and a policy, adopting democracy is not only a method or practice, but also to give results, the result, if we wanted a true democratic results, everybody, all children of the Palestinian people must participate in the elections, otherwise we cannot follow a pick-and-choose democracy. This is something that we will not accept.
RAY SUAREZ: But this may be another example of a gap between Israel and the United States. I understand that the President of the United States is willing to see Hamas in these elections, and perhaps these Israelis are not.
MAHMOUD ABBAS: I do not ask from the Israeli government to exclude anybody from the elections when Israelis enter into the elections, we see that there are 32 lists from the extreme right to the extreme left. This is democracy also to us. Israel cannot demand that we exclude anybody from the elections. Therefore, I believe that -- the U.S. administration must talk to the Israelis.
And we will also talk with Mr. Sharon at a time when we meet him to inform him that that position is wrong, and that does not mean democracy.
RAY SUAREZ: One final question, sir. What would you say to Israelis who watching their television, reading their newspapers, saw what happened in Gaza after the Israeli forces left? Should they be reassured about the peace and security of Israel by what happened in Gaza? Should they be reassured about the future of the West Bank by looking at Gaza after the pullout?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: I believe that Gaza experiment is a useful one that the Israelis and the whole world should see -- that when the Israeli army had left and the settlers had left and we pledged that exit be quiet and without any incidents at all, that indicates that we believe in peace and we believe in stopping violence no matter what the causes are.
We do not want at all that our people should live under the fear of violence. Also we do not want for the Israeli people to live either under the fear of violence. At the same time, we also need to be a nation with its own, its own independence with the right force of determination.
If the Israelis wish that we should arrive to that point, definitely they will be the winners. They will be the winners because in the end, their neighbor enjoys their rights and will be a friendly neighbor, a loving neighbor, and a neighbor who would deal with them in a neighborly way. And we are close in the same region, we're in the same area, sharing the Holy Land together.
Consequently, we are a bridge for them towards the whole Arab and Islamic world because this world looks at the Arab Israelis and say unless this issue is resolved, then we will not have any relations with Israel or any dialogue with the Israelis. This must be understood by the Israelis.
RAY SUAREZ: Mr. President, thanks for being with us.
MAHMOUD ABBAS: Thank you, thank you very much.