Bush, Olmert Praise Palestinians' Abbas

President Bush, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2007. AP

President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday sought to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him a moderate voice and the only true leader of the Palestinian people.

"He doesn't have convince me" too much," said Olmert at the start of his White House meeting with Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush said he wants Abbas to lead the Palestinians "in a different direction."

The new situation in the Palestinian territories quickly became the main topic for a previously-scheduled meeting between the two leaders, as the two discussed how to shore up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's shaky emergency government while isolating Hamas, reports CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer.

Mr. Bush called Abbas "the president of all the Palestinians" and "a voice for moderation."

"I'm going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him," the prime minister said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of terrified Gazans fleeing Hamas rule were trapped at a main crossing between Gaza and Israel on Tuesday, hoping to gain permission to pass through Israeli territory to sanctuary in the West Bank.

In other developments in the Middle East:

  • Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (left) took over as
    (Getty Images)
    defense minister on Tuesday, an appointment that restored the job to a man with solid defense credentials at a time of heightened security concerns on Israel's southern and northern borders. Barak is Israel's most decorated soldier. He takes over from Amir Peretz, a former union chief with little military experience whose handling of the flawed Lebanon war has been widely criticized.

  • The Fatah Central Committee, Fatah's top leadership body decided Tuesday to cut off all contacts with Hamas, Azzam al-Ahmed, a participant, said. "The Fatah Central Committee decided today not to conduct any kind of contact, dialogue or meetings with Hamas unless it ends its military coup in Gaza and restores the situation to normal."

  • Syria's U.N. ambassador on Monday dismissed rumors of secret Syrian-Israeli talks and reiterated Damascus' call for Israel to resume peace negotiations that stalled seven years ago. Peace talks broke down in 2000 after Syria demanded that Israel withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 war, and Israel refused to make such a pledge until issues of security and normalization of relations were settled.

    Palestinian officials welcome the resumption of U.S. aid but admit that it won't solve their problems, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

    "We have a major disaster, a major catastrophe, with this armed takeover in Gaza by these groups. And if we don't help ourselves as Palestinians nobody else will," said Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat.

    Presidents Bush and Olmert met at the White House in the aftermath of Palestinian turmoil that left Abbas, a Western-backed moderate, in control of one Palestinian government in the West Bank and his Islamist rival Hamas in control of the geographically-separate Gaza Strip.

    "Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyyad — who's a good fellow — will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction," Mr. Bush said.

    Olmert said he will be talking to Abbas but spoke of several prerequisites for progress towards peace.

    They included a much more responsive Palestinian government and increased security efforts, Olmert said.

    But Israeli analyst Dan Scheuftan says support of Abbas is a waste of time.

    "Mahmoud Abbas is a hologram. He doesn't really exist. He is a rumor. His authority in the West Bank is nonexistent," Scheuftan said.
    • Lloyd Vries

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