Bush calls for Middle East peace conference

President George W. Bush on Monday called for a Middle East peace conference later this year and pledged renewed support for the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Aiming to break years of stalemate, Bush called for a meeting between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and their neighbors. He did not say where it would take place.

Reaffirming his vision of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel, Bush said Palestinians faced "a moment of choice" between the Islamist militant group Hamas and Abbas's more moderate vision.

"This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians. Now comes a moment of choice," Bush said in a White House speech. "The alternatives before the Palestinian people are stark."

After the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas last month, Western countries had rallied behind Abbas with promises of renewed aid.

Their hope is to isolate Hamas, branded a terrorist group by the United States, and to spur peace moves between Palestinian moderates and Israel.

Some political analysts said the strategy could backfire as Abbas will be viewed more as a collaborator with Israel and Washington.

Bush phoned King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to urge their continued backing of Abbas. Bush also called Abbas to discuss his speech and underscore his support for the Palestinian leader, said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have long wanted Bush to get more involved in Middle East peacemaking. He is due to leave office in 18 months.


Bush is facing growing pressure at home to begin pulling troops out of Iraq. At the same time, U.S. officials have renewed requests for help from Middle East countries in stabilizing Iraq.

The regional meeting would be led by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush said it would review progress on building Palestinian institutions.

"I will provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations so that we can move forward on a successful path to a Palestinian state," Bush said.

Some $190 million in aid has been pledged for Abbas's government for the current fiscal year ending September 30.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, said about $145 million was for humanitarian aid for the Palestinians channeled via the United Nations. A further $50 million is for democracy issues, building Palestinian institutions and private-sector development.

Separately, the Bush administration plans to put about $86 million into reforming Abbas's security forces of which Congress has already given the go-ahead for $59 million.

Rice had been scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories this week. The trip was postponed and instead Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit unspecified Middle East countries late this month or early in August.

Middle East expert Shibley Telhami said the Bush administration's strategy of isolating Hamas could not work.

"I don't see how anything serious on the diplomatic front can be accomplished so long as the strategy to isolate Hamas continues," said Telhami of the University of Maryland.

Bush's ally, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, this week assumes the role of envoy for the Quartet of Middle East mediators, which includes the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The Quartet, which will convene in Lisbon on Thursday, is expected to endorse Bush's plan for a regional meeting.

(Published by Reuters, July 16, 2007)

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