WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – President George W. Bush hosts Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Thursday to try to bolster him and shore up a fragile U.S.-backed peace effort with Israel.
With 10 months left in office, Bush will hold talks with Abbas in the face of deep skepticism over the chances for securing a Middle East peace deal before the U.S. president finishes his term early next year.
Abbas, weakened by Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, was expected to seek stepped-up U.S. pressure on Israel. Bush will visit the Jewish state in mid-May to join in celebrations of its 60th anniversary.
Negotiations between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have yielded little progress since a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November, where they pledged to try to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008.
The administration now appears to be picking up the pace of Middle East diplomacy again after Bush failed to achieve a breakthrough on his visit to the region in January.
In White House talks on Wednesday, aides to Jordan’s King Abdullah said the monarch pressed for a timetable for negotiations on Palestinian statehood, something Bush has been reluctant to impose.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is going to the region ahead of Bush, who is looking to shape a foreign policy legacy that encompasses more than the unpopular war in Iraq. But Bush will likely have a hard time squeezing serious concessions from either side as world leaders look increasingly to whomever will succeed him January 2009.
Abbas, speaking late on Wednesday to the Arab community in Washington, said “We are holding serious negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement by the end of this year. But I have to say that there are wide gaps between us and the Israelis on the issues under discussion. “I would like to reiterate, despite those gaps my commitment to achieving a peace agreement.”
“Settlements are the most important obstacle to the peace process,” Abbas said. I call upon Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to halt settlement activities.” He added that the Bush administration had shown seriousness in trying to resolve the conflict.
In the months since Bush shepherded the formal resumption of peace talks, there has been little if any narrowing of differences over key issues such as borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. “The gaps between the two sides on the core issues are deep,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, recounting what Abbas told Rice on Wednesday.
The atmosphere has been further clouded by Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank and outbreaks of violence in and around Gaza, where Hamas cross-border rocket fire has drawn a Israeli military response.
Critics had accused Bush, who disdained predecessor Bill Clinton’s failed hands-on peace effort at the end of his presidency, of neglecting the Middle East conflict and they say he still has not deployed Washington’s full weight.
Also uncertain is whether Abbas and Olmert, who heads a shaky ruling coalition, have enough clout to close a deal.
Bush wants to boost Abbas, a moderate who governs only in the West Bank since Hamas seized control of Gaza.
Insisting Bush’s strategy of isolating Hamas was counterproductive, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met the group’s leaders in Egypt and Syria last week.
The Bush administration opposed Carter’s contacts with Hamas, viewed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel. The group’s charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Hoping to show Palestinians the fruits of peacemaking, Abbas wants U.S. pressure on Israel to reach a framework agreement outlining the path to a two-state solution.
Abbas’ aides say there is concern not only that a failure of Bush’s peace effort would weaken the Palestinian leader and strengthen Islamist rivals, but that any momentum toward a deal would be lost at the start of a new U.S. administration. For his part, Olmert has made clear he prefers a vaguer list of “understandings” with the Palestinians.