Bush, Olmert back Abbas, downplay Syria talks
President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his battle with Hamas, calling him a moderate voice and the only true leader of the Palestinian people.
Bush and Olmert, before meeting in the Oval Office, both spoke positively to reporters of the prospect for new talks between Abbas and Olmert. "I am going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him," the Israeli leader said. Bush called Abbas "the president of all the Palestinians" and "a reasonable voice amongst the extremists."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday announced an end to an economic and political embargo on the Palestinians. Israel has seemed likely to free up millions in tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. "Like you, I want to strengthen the moderates," Olmert said, according to the AP.
"Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister (Salam) Fayyad who's a good fellow will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction," Bush said.
Olmert said he would talk to Abbas, but spoke of several prerequisites for any progress toward peace. They included "a much more credible and serious administration" by the Palestinians, and one that will "fight terror in the most effective way," he said. "This is not something that the Palestinians can escape," Olmert highlighted.
Bush said the split in the Palestinian territories is purely the fault of Hamas. "It was Hamas that attacked the unity government," the president said. "They made a choice of violence. It was their decision that has caused there to be this current situation in the Middle East."
On another matter, Olmert played down the possibility of any breakthrough on discussions between Tel Aviv and Damascus. "The Syrian leader said that he is against any precondition on the Israel side but he is certainly for preconditions on the Syrian side," he said. "I'm not certain that the understanding of the president of Syria can lay the foundations for immediate discussions."
The U.S. has opposed talking to Syria because of its ties to Iran and armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon. When asked about Syria Tuesday, Bush did not seem to change his position.
"If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria he doesn't need me to mediate ... It's up the prime minister," Bush said. "This man is plenty capable of having negotiations without me mediating."