WASHINGTON - The new Palestinian government should be given assistance and a chance to succeed, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday in Washington.
Speaking after a series of meetings in the White House, including a two-hour session alone with President George W. Bush, Olmert added that on Sunday, his cabinet would approve the release of tax revenues collected on the Palestinian Authority's behalf by Israel.
"The new Palestinian government deserves a chance, and also assistance," he said.
Olmert said that Israel would also agree to a "more far-reaching" removal of checkpoints in order to increase Palestinian freedom of movement inside the West Bank. Measures will also be taken to bolster the forces loyal to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, he added.
Referring to the Gaza Strip, Olmert said: "We will provide all that is necessary to meet humanitarian needs and we will not be indifferent. This suffering has been caused by Palestinians against their own people."
Regarding the plight of refugees waiting at the Erez crossing, Olmert said that anyone whom security checks prove is not a terrorist will be allowed to pass through.
Prior to their meeting, Bush and Olmert spoke to journalists at the White House. The president praised Olmert for being a strong leader committed to the security and prosperity of his country and to creating the conditions for peace.
He also pointed out that Israel and the United States share the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security. That vision, he said, is important to the moderates in both countries - "the ordinary Palestinians who need something to look forward to" and Israelis concerned that demographic pressure threatens their state's Jewish character.
Bush linked the Palestinian front in Gaza to other Middle Eastern fronts in which the U.S. is currently involved.
"It is interesting that extremists are assaulting democracies throughout the Middle East, whether this is in Iraq, Lebanon or the potentially democratic Palestine. We are in a monumental ideological confrontation," he said.
Following the Hamas takeover in Gaza, the speech that Bush was planning to make next week to commemorate the launching of his two-state vision has been canceled, and a planned visit to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been postponed.
Also canceled was a meeting of the Quartet that was scheduled to take place in Cairo next week with the participation of Olmert and Abbas.
Olmert reiterated his commitment to meet with Abbas and stressed that he had even been willing to visit Jericho. Nonetheless, he did not say whether there was a schedule for the renewal of meetings between the two leaders.
Bush praised Abbas and the prime minister of the PA's emergency government, Salam Fayad.
On the Syrian front, responding to a reporter's questions about whether he would be willing to mediate between Israel and Syria, Bush said: "If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria he doesn't need me to mediate ... It's up the prime minister."
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