WASHINGTON - President Bush said Monday he would welcome newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the White House, extending an invitation he refused to offer to the late Yasser Arafat.
Bush said he was heartened by the Palestinian elections and offered his congratulations to Abbas, who was elected by a landslide.
"I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here," the president said, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office. He referred to Abbas as Abu Mazen, as he is commonly known among Palestinians.
Abbas' victory is widely seen as the opening of new possibilities for peace after four decades of corruption-riddled rule by Arafat. Bush had branded Arafat an impediment and refused to deal with him. Abbas has spoken out against violence and had the backing of the international community.
When he was prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas visited with Bush at the White House for a working lunch and press conference on July 25, 2003. He also attended a summit with Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan, June 4, 2003.
Israeli leaders have welcomed Abbas' victory, but said they will watch closely how hard he tries to subdue militants. Bush said Israel "can play and must play an important part" in the development of a Palestinian state.
"I think it's going to be very important for Israel to fulfill its obligation on the withdrawal from the territories that they have pledged to withdraw from," the president said.
Bush said, "It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side-by-side in peace; and that, as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israel government support the development of those institutions and recognize that it is essential that there be a viable economy, that there be a viable health care system, that people be allowed to start building a society that meets their hopes and needs."
Bush also said the Palestinian leadership must revamp its security forces to "fight off those few who still have the desire to destroy Israel as a part of their philosophy and those few who fear there to be a free vote amongst the Palestinian people."
Bush pledged support for a March conference in London on Palestinian reform. He also noted that the Palestinian election was just weeks before the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.
"This is an extraordinary year, when you think about it," the president said. "In the first month of a new year, there will be an election in the Palestinian territory and there will be an election in Iraq."
In a written statement Sunday, Bush said Abbas' election was a key step toward the establishment of an independent and peaceful Palestinian state.
"The United States stands ready to help the Palestinian people realize their aspirations," Bush said in the statement. "The new Palestinian president and his cabinet face critical tasks ahead, including fighting terrorism, combatting corruption, building reformed and democratic institutions, and reviving the Palestinian economy."
Bush said the United States will help Abbas and the Palestinian people address the challenges and help create two states, Israel and Palestine, side-by-side in peace. He said other countries, including Israel, must do their part to create peace.