Bush to Give Mideast Speech After PM-Abbas Meet Today

President George W. Bush will give a special address today on the Middle East, which is expected to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.

The speech of the U.S. president will express a plan for "activism" on the part of the Bush administration, according to a senior Israeli political source who was briefed in advance about it. Bush's tone is meant to express his approval of the formation of a new Palestinian Authority government under Salam Fayad, as well as the appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair as the Quartet's coordinator.

The speech is also intended to reiterate President Bush's commitment to a two-state solution, and will offer American support to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

In addition to offering new ideas for progress, it is also expected to include demands from Israel.

"In the past, it had been clear who the good guys and the bad guys were, and so long as Yasser Arafat and [later] Hamas were in power in the Palestinian Authority," that was the case, the senior political source said last night. "Now, Bush needs to relate to the two sides as equals," the source added.

The president's speech will be made several hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosts Abbas at his official residence in Jerusalem, and should make reference to it, as well as to the package of measures Israel has undertaken to bolster Abbas and the Fayad government. These include the release of prisoners, amnesty to fugitive Fatah militants, and entry permits to veteran PLO leaders.

Bush had originally planned to make this speech three weeks ago, on the five-year anniversary of his "vision speech" on a two-state solution. The speech was postponed because of the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, at which point the administration considered waiting until September.

However, in recent days it was decided not to delay the speech any longer, in great part because it considers Fayad's appointment a significant development and places great hopes in the abilities of the new prime minister, whom Washington considers to be a credible, results-oriented leader.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is of the opinion that the Abbas-Fayad team makes it possible to promote the peace process in ways that have not been possible in the past seven years, since the collapse of the Camp David effort in 2000.

The Americans have also asked Israel to calm growing concerns in Jordan regarding statements and plans that may destabilize the Hashemite kingdom.

Following the publication of reports regarding the "collapse of the idea of a Palestinian state," King Abdullah expressed his concerns to the Bush administration, particularly in relation to talk in the U.S. and Israel about a possible union of the West Bank and Jordan in a confederal or federal structure.

During a secret visit to the kingdom last Wednesday, Olmert is presumed to have tried to assuage the King's concerns - although there are no reports confirming this.

The working meeting between Olmert and Abbas today will be the first time the two have met since the summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, three weeks ago.

The two leaders are expected to discuss relations between Israel and the PA in light of the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip and the formation of the Fatah-dominated emergency government in the West Bank, under Prime Minister Fayad.

Abbas is expected to ask Olmert to renew negotiations on a final-settlement agreement between Israel and the PA.

Such a step, Abbas aides said yesterday, is likely to contribute a great deal in security matters and in the ability of the Fayad government to assert its control against militant groups.

"So far, Israel has not responded negatively to this request, but also has not given a positive answer," Nabil Amar, one of Abbas' aides said yesterday.

"It is unclear what the reason may be. After all, Israel will not withdraw from Jerusalem tomorrow. We took a very progressive step in matters of security, on the matter of the wanted militants and the armed militias. But we also need political talks," he told Haaretz.

In anticipation of the meeting, Olmert authorized a package of goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians aimed at bolstering Abbas and his hold on the West Bank.

Among the measures is the release of 250 members of Fatah and the various Marxist-Leninist factions of the PLO, held in Israeli prisons, as well as a conditional immunity to 178 Fatah- affiliated militants wanted by the Shin Bet.

Israel will also approve the entry, for a limited period, into the West Bank, of senior officials of the PLO, the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front (PFLP), including Naif Hawatmeh and Farouk Kaddoumi.

Abbas asked that these veteran Palestinian leaders be allowed into the territories to participate in a conference aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of the Fayad government within the PLO.

Meanwhile, during yesterday's cabinet meeting, a number of ministers, including some from Kadima, the prime minister's own party, expressed their opposition to some of the measures that Olmert intends to adopt vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

The most vocal critic was the transport minister, and deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, who attacked the decision to allow Hawatmeh, the secretary general of the DFLP, to visit the West Bank.

"It was a mistake to allow Hawatmeh entry," he said. "This constitutes the crossing of a red line. He is a master murderer, whose hands are stained with the blood of the children of Ma'alot. If he wants to express his support for Abu Mazen [Abbas], Abu Mazen can go visit him elsewhere."

Hawatmeh's DFLP was responsible for the massacre of 22 school children in the Northern town of Ma'alot, in May 1974.

Shas ministers Eli Yishai and Yitzhak Cohen were also critical, saying that they could not support the gestures being made in favor of Abbas without asking that the release of Palestinian prisoners be linked to the release of Jews imprisoned for nationalist-motivated attacks against Arabs.

"Until the Jewish prisoners are also released, I will not support the release of Arab prisoners," Yishai said. "We must have a balance on this issue."

Cohen was critical of the immunity granted to wanted militants, saying that it was important to continue the fight against them.

Criticism of Olmert's decisions also came from Avigdor Lieberman and Yitzhak Aharonovitch, both ministers from Yisrael Beitenu.

In spite of the criticism, the Prime Minister's Office and the Shin Bet clarified yesterday that the Tanzim leader in Jenin, Zakaria Zubeidi, is included in the list of Fatah fugitives who will be granted immunity from arrest and assassination for a trial period of three months.

Originally the Shin Bet said that Zubeidi was not part of the deal, but yesterday a statement was issued explaining that there he was. Also yesterday, members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Fatah's military wing, continued to turn in their weapons and sign a document committing to refrain from acts of terror, which is a condition of the immunity deal for 178 fugitives.

However, even those who are not included in the list turned up to surrender their weapons.

One, Jafer al-Simhan, told the Ma'an news agency that the Palestinian Authority's security organs have offered large sums of cash to the fugitives who turned in their weapons. According to the price list, an AK-47 will fetch 1000 Jordanian dinars (about $1300), and an M-16 as much as 6000 dinars.

Most of those who signed up for the immunity deal, stayed at the headquarters of the security forces, as had been required in the agreement.