WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush said it twice: Moderate Mahmoud Abbas ``is the president of all the Palestinians.'' At Bush's side, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it, too.
Despite their insistence, though, Abbas is for all intents and purposes now the leader of only about half the Palestinians.
Bush and Olmert came together Tuesday in the Oval Office for a meeting planned long before the Gaza Strip descended into chaos. Their session took on the air of an emergency gathering after recent events weakened Abbas further, gave the Islamic militant group Hamas near-complete control in Gaza and ushered in fresh upheaval and uncertainty.
After bloody street battles in Gaza, Hamas routed Abbas' Fatah security forces last week in the tiny coastal territory. Abbas then evicted Hamas from a Hamas-Fatah coalition government, a move Hamas decries as illegal.
As a result, nearly 3 million Palestinians essentially have two governments. Nearly half are under Hamas control in Gaza, with the rest under Abbas' authority in the inland West Bank. Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction, while Abbas' Fatah movement seeks peace with the Jewish state.
The response from the United States, Israel and much of the West has been swift: try to shore up Abbas in hopes that the West Bank can be made into a democratic example that will eventually defeat Hamas and bring along Gaza.
So Bush and Olmert made it a point to emphatically side with Abbas, hoping extra money and warm words would give the beleaguered leader primacy.
``He has spoken out for moderation,'' Bush said before an Oval Office strategy session with Olmert. ``He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood.''
``Like you, I want to strengthen the moderates,'' echoed Olmert, who promised ``to make every possible effort to cooperate'' with Abbas.
In between the meeting with the president at the White House and more with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, Olmert said he would soon present his government with a proposal to free an unspecified portion of the millions in tax revenue Israel has collected on behalf of the Palestinians but has frozen since Hamas won legislative elections in 2006.
Other concrete steps to bolster Abbas will include increasing freedom of movement in the West Bank by removing checkpoints and considering the release of Palestinian prisoners, the prime minister told reporters traveling with him.
On Monday, the Bush administration resumed aid and full government contacts with the Palestinian government, suspended when Hamas took power last year.
``Our hope is that President Abbas and the prime minister _ (Salam) Fayyad, who's a good fella _ will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction, with a different hope,'' Bush said.
Calling him the ``president of all Palestinians'' appeared an effort to confer at least as much legitimacy on Abbas' 2004 election as president of the Palestinian Authority as on the Hamas legislative wins. Olmert went even further, saying Abbas is ``perhaps the only person who was widely elected in a democratic manner by all of the Palestinian people.''
Their effort got a lift from a representative of neighboring Arab states. Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said those countries back Abbas' moves to dissolve the coalition cabinet, declare a state of emergency and outlaw Hamas' armed wing. ``The Arab League stands firmly with the president and with the legality,'' he told CNN.
While the leaders heaped support on Abbas, they sought to further isolate democratically elected Hamas by doing just the opposite.
Olmert said that ``many people in the world were astounded by the brutality and the cruelty and the viciousness'' of the Hamas fighters. Bush lumped the radical group with the likes of al-Qaida and insurgents in Iraq, calling them ``a group of radicals and extremists who are willing to use violence, unspeakable violence sometimes, to achieve a political objective.''
Critics have said that the United States helped bring about Hamas' rise by not giving more cash and support to Abbas before the elections. Hamas' surprise victory was credited largely to the services it already had been delivering in its Gaza stronghold.
Bush laid the blame for the current split in the Palestinian territories squarely on Hamas. ``They made a choice of violence,'' he said.
Presidential press secretary Tony Snow said Hamas' recent actions will convince both Palestinians and the world of its true nature, that of a terrorist organization, as listed by Israel, the European Union and the U.S. ``I can't imagine that killing people in the streets is going to be a big vote-getter,'' he said.
Still, Olmert was willing to do only so much for Abbas.
Abbas has said that all sides should capitalize on the situation and restart long-stalled peace negotiations. But though the Israeli leader said ``there's no question that I want to talk'' to Abbas, he also laid out several prerequisites for progress that included implied criticism of his Palestinian counterpart. Olmert's conditions included ``a much more credible and serious administration'' by the Palestinians, one that will ``fight terror in the most effective way.''
The chaos in the Mideast also complicates White House plans for outlining Bush's vision for the peace process, an area where the president has been criticized for a lack of focused effort. The White House had hoped to the mark the fifth anniversary of Bush's June 24, 2002, call for a separate, independent Palestine alongside Israel with a major address. That is up in the air now.