Time is short for a deal with Israel, Abbas tells Bush in symbolic meeting

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The Independent US

Even after President Bush announced $50m (£26m) of direct housing aid for the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, delivered a blunt warning yesterday that time was running out for a peace settlement with Israel.

"We must end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before it is too late," Mr Abbas declared during a symbolic visit to the White House.

"Time is becoming our greatest enemy," he said, condemning Israel's continuing settlement building, and reiterating the goal of a Palestinian state "within the boundaries of 1967". His appearance in the Rose Garden came at a pivotal moment for efforts to reactivate the road map to peace.

Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza approaches but so do Palestinian municipal elections, set for 17 July, at which Mr Abbas - hailed in Washington as a new type of Palestinian leader - faces a tough challenge from the militant Hamas group, still classified by the US as a terrorist organisation.

Meeting Congressional leaders earlier on Capitol Hill, Mr Abbas denied West Bank reports he was seeking to have the elections pushed back to November.

The later date would be safely after the Gaza withdrawal, whose success depends not only on compliance by the displaced Israeli settlers but also on close co-operation with the Palestinian security forces.

His US visit is the first by a Palestinian president since summer 2000, when the peace talks brokered by President Bill Clinton collapsed into violence. Six months later, the Bush administration came to office, vowing to have no dealings whatsoever with Mr Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

"We want 'a clear political position' from the US regarding the implementation of the road map as well as economic aid," Mr Abbas said before the talks. But whether he got one is highly debatable.

Mr Bush again condemned settlement expansion by Israel. But the fresh aid, earmarked for Palestinian housing in Gaza, is a fraction of the $1.2bn of aid pledged to Palestine last December, of which only $100m has been forthcoming.

With more than one eye on the domestic difficulties faced by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, over the Gaza pull-out, the US President again leant on Mr Abbas to do more to tackle Palestinian extremism and corruption. He repeated the familiar mantra that "both sides must meet their obligations under the road map."

"Photo-ops will not provide much help," said Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy for both the first President Bush and Bill Clinton, arguing that Mr Abbas desperately needed concrete help if he was to show results and prevent more power slipping to Hamas at the forthcoming elections.

"Abbas believes in secular governance, the rule of law, non-violence and co-existence with Israel," Mr Ross wrote in the Washington Post. "If he cannot make it, if he cannot demonstrate that his way offers a future for the Palestinian people... what message does that send? Who do we think will take his place?"

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