WASHINGTON - President Bush praised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' steps toward peace and democracy on Thursday and predicted that Palestinians will reject candidates of the militant group Hamas in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Bush, with Abbas at his side in the Rose Garden, said it was his hope that "more and more people will reject the notion" of a "state based upon violence."
Bush also announced that United States will direct $50 million for housing and other construction aid to the Palestinian Authority to help Palestinians in Gaza once Israelis leave this August.
"You have made a new start on a difficult journey, requiring courage and leadership each day. And we will take that journey together," Bush told Abbas in the first visit of the top Palestinian leader to the White House of Bush's presidency.
For his part, Abbas vowed to adhere to the U.S.-supported peace process.
But, he said, "Time is becoming our greatest enemy. We must end this conflict before it is too late."
Asked about the presence of Hamas candidates on the July 17 Palestinian ballot, Bush said that the United States hasn't changed its views of the militant group.
"Hamas is a terrorist group. It's on the terrorist list for a reason," he said.
Still, Bush added, "As the elections go forward, of course, we want everybody to participate in the vote. There's something healthy about people campaigning, saying, `This is what I'm for.'"
Abbas "ran on a peace platform," Bush said. He suggested Palestinian voters would reject candidates who advocate violence. "Palestinian moms want their children to grow up in peace just like American moms want their kids to grow up in peace," Bush said.
The $50 million in new direct aid is part of a $150 million package that Bush is seeking for the Palestinians from Congress. He said the money would help Palestinians settle into Gaza once the Israel withdrawal set for this summer is complete.
"America wants to help," Bush said.
Reacting to the announcement, Palestinian legislator and human rights activist Hanan Ashrawi said the $50 million was just a "modest beginning."
"I'm sure the U.S. is capable of giving greater support not only to Gaza, but to the West Bank," she told The Associated Press.
Bush said that both the Palestinians and Israel must live up to their obligations under the so-called "road map" peace process that calls for creation of an independent Palestinian state on lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
"Israel must continue to take steps toward a peaceful future" and not take steps that contravene road map obligations, Bush said. He said Israel must "remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansions."
At the same time, the Palestinians must end violence against Israelis.
"You cannot have a democracy based upon rule of law if you have armed bands of people who will use their weapons to try to achieve a political outcome," Bush said.
"We must not lose sight of the path ahead," he added.
Bush said he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Jerusalem and Ramallah before the Israeli withdrawal.
Abbas reiterated Palestinian objections to a barrier being built by Israel to protect its territory.
"There is no justification for the wall and it is illegitimate and well as settlements - it is illegitimate and we should not allow," he said.
Abbas said that he remains committed to establishing a Palestinian democracy.
"We have chosen democracy as a way of life. This was not an adventure. This was a determination and a strategy that democracy is the only way to move forward," he said.
"But democracy is like a coin, it has two sides, on the one side is democracy and the other side is freedom. ... Now we lack freedom ... We do not live in freedom in our homeland," Abbas added.
The meeting was a delicate balancing act for Bush.
With Israel refusing to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians until Abbas does more to rein in terrorist groups, Bush was pushing Abbas to tackle the tough job of dismantling all Palestinian militant groups.
Israel also has said it won't resume talks on the internationally backed road map peace plan until it completes its plan to withdraw settlements this summer from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
Amid those developments, Bush has embarked on a fresh drive to invigorate the search for peace in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Last month, Bush brought Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, to his Texas ranch.