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Bush, Chirac discuss Middle East

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- French President Jacques Chirac telephoned President Bush on Saturday to discuss ways to reduce anti-Israeli violence and "ease the plight of the Palestinian people," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The Middle East was relatively quiet Saturday following a recent upsurge of violence in which Palestinian gunmen have ambushed several Israeli soldiers and Israel has retaliated by bombing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's offices in the West Bank and Gaza.

On Saturday, McCormack echoed previous Bush administration statements in calling on Arafat to do more to suppress militant attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets.

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McCormack also said the Israeli government must "do something" to improve the lives and mobility of Palestinians -- a new emphasis of the administration's policy, which had long demanded only a reduction in Palestinian violence.

"After the innocent Israeli victims of terrorism, the people who suffer most are the Palestinian people," McCormack said. "They can't move forward. There's no stability or economic growth."

McCormack said the administration is pressuring Israeli to release millions in tax money collected for the Palestinian Authority and to lift restrictions on the movement of peaceable Palestinians in the occupied territories.

According to a spokeswoman for Chirac, the French president urged Bush to intensify pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to restart peace talks.

Richard Haas, director of the State Department's office of policy planning and a key Bush diplomat for the Middle East, will visit Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next week.

"He'll be discussing issues all the way from the general foreign policy and regional security issues to the current and future efforts we need to make against terrorism and the prospects for peace negotiations in the Middle East," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.

Earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine sharply criticized the White House's Middle East policy, saying it single-mindedly supported Israel at the Palestinians' expense.

"We think it is a mistake blindly to accept the policy of pure repression conducted by (Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon," Vedrine told France Inter Radio on February 7. "We are saying this and we are making a number of other proposals."

In addition to Bush's talks with Chirac, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke Saturday with Arafat, Sharon and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.




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