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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Palestinian Prime Minister Visits White House

Aired July 25, 2003 - 20:08   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Turning now to the Middle East peace process, President Bush today met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, a first for the Bush administration. And while it seems progress is being made, there are still several hurdles to clear on the road map to peace.
Senior White House correspondent John King has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The president welcomed his guest by embracing a key Palestinian demand, that Israel dismantle a new security barrier walling off the Palestinian territories.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank.

KING: Israel says the wall will help reduce attacks on its citizens. But Mr. Bush says Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has agreed to discuss the issue when they meet next week.

Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories are another roadblock in the peace process. And the Palestinian prime minister made clear, dismantling some is not enough.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, PALESTINIAN PRIME MINISTER: For the sake of peace, and for the sake of future Palestinian and Israeli generations, all settlement activities must be stopped now and the wall must come down.

KING: Mr. Bush would not embrace another major Palestinian demand, that Israel grant the blanket release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

BUSH: You ought to look at the prisoner issue on a case-by-case basis. Surely, nobody wants to let a cold-blooded killer out of prison that would help derail the process.

KING: Israel on Friday pledged to take a few more steps called for in the so-called road map for peace, transferring security control in two more West Bank cities back to the Palestinians and eliminating some of the security checkpoints Palestinians say make it difficult to get from their homes to their jobs and schools.

Only modest progress has been made in the seven weeks since Mr. Bush's Mideast summit. But the level of violence is down significantly. And just this picture is noteworthy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Noteworthy because Mr. Bush shunned Yasser Arafat for some 30 months for one simple reason: He did not trust him. The president says Prime Minister Abbas is more than welcome at the White House, though he did say, if the prime minister wants to earn even more trust, he can prove in the days, weeks and months ahead that he can keep Palestinian militants under wraps -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: John, question for you. We heard today from Mahmoud Abbas about progress and movement. But is there any sense that this visit and next week's visit by Ariel Sharon will actually really have any kind of real difference in the peace process?

KING: Given the history, with any optimism also comes a great deal of caution. But, Soledad, they do think there is a potential for at least modest steps forward. There have been a few modest steps implementing the road map.

Mr. Bush clearly trusts Prime Minister Abbas and was trying to do everything he could today to elevate his political stature. A better answer to the question will be available this time Tuesday night, after Prime Minister Sharon leaves the White House, if we see if he is prepared to make some of the key concessions the White House says must come next.

O'BRIEN: And, John, you've got the president handling this delicate peace process at the same time when Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is heading for the Middle East this weekend, quoted in "The New York Times" as saying this: "I can't imagine this president supporting a state of terrorists, a sovereign state of terrorists. You'd have to change almost an entire generation's culture."

Any word from the White House in reaction to this?

KING: Well, White House aides tell us privately they wish Mr. DeLay would keep his focus on domestic politics and stay out of international relations. They don't like that quote. They don't like the timing of this trip.

Mr. Bush, they say, would never support a nation of terrorists. They say that's why it is Mr. Bush who pushed for months to push Yasser Arafat to the sidelines and to get Mr. Abbas in power. Certainly, they view the speech Mr. DeLay will give to the Israeli Parliament as bad timing, to say the least. They're hoping, though, that Prime Minister Sharon understands, it is Mr. Bush and not Mr. DeLay who will call the shots in the months ahead -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: John King, senior White House correspondent, thank you very much for that.

KING: Thank you.

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