By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT
US President George W. Bush sought to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Monday with an address at the White House calling for an international meeting in September and additional aid to the Palestinians.
He also said Israel would need to take steps to help bolster Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, including ending settlement expansion and developing the Negev and Galilee, "not in continuing occupation of the West Bank."
Efforts to strengthen the Palestinians, Bush indicated, were "designed to lay the foundation for a successful Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza," and could pave the way for "serious negotiations" toward such an end.
The speech looked to give a boost to the "political horizon," or contours of a final-status agreement, the administration has long been discussing.
Bush mentioned the need for a "secure" Israel and a "viable and contiguous" Palestinian state. Additionally, he said negotiations must "lead to a territorial settlement, with mutually agreed borders reflecting previous lines and current realities, and mutually agreed adjustments."
The conference, to be hosted by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would include the Israelis, Palestinians and "their neighbors in the region," according to the president.
A senior State Department official, in a briefing following the speech, would not specify where the meeting would be held or which countries were expected to take part, but did say that "robust consultations" were going on.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said that Israel hoped to see the involvement of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Morocco.
But she played down the mandate of such a gathering, saying that Bush had not called it an international peace conference, but rather a regional "meeting" of participants who support the idea of a two-state solution.
The purpose of the meeting, she said, was not to come up with a conclusive peace agreement, but rather to bring together those backing a two-state solution to lend support to the sides.
Overall, Israel reacted very positively to Bush's speech, saying that the US president came out strongly against Hamas, and reaffirmed standing US policy in the region.
"We see this as a positive speech that reaffirms the American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, including a strong stand against terror and the importance of building Palestinian national institutions," Eisin said.
She added that Israel saw "eye-to-eye" with the US and the international community on the importance of new Quartet envoy Tony Blair helping to build Palestinian institutions that could contribute toward "moving forward to a viable independent Palestinian state."
The US had been looking to build momentum earlier this year on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but suffered a setback when Hamas took over Gaza. The speech, initially discussed as to be delivered closer to the five-year anniversary of Bush's articulation of a two-state solution in June of 2002, was pushed back because of the Palestinian crisis. But the administration decided to move ahead with it now, partly because of the urgency of the Palestinian situation in the wake of Hamas's growing strength and to bolster the recently tapped Palestinian prime minister, Salaam Fayad, in his new office. Fayad, a Washington favorite, is seen as a moderate.
In his speech, Bush portrayed the situation among the Palestinians as a moment of struggle between moderates and extremists which fits into the larger battle America is engaged in in the region.
Bush announced that plans to give $59 million to fund security reform would be boosted to $80m., and that up to $225m. would be available in loans to reinvigorate the Palestinian economy.
At the same time, he said it was up to the Palestinians to take action.
"This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians," Bush said. "And now comes the moment of choice." He also stressed the US commitment to Israel. "They should be confident that the United States will never abandon its commitment to the security of Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people."
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.
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