Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Prisoner Release Tests Mideast 'Map' ; Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abbas Meets President Bush Friday

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Prisoner Release Tests Mideast 'Map' ; Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abbas Meets President Bush Friday

Article excerpt

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas meets Friday in Washington with President Bush, the first White House visit by a Palestinian leader in three years.

The meeting, along with one slated for next week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is meant to convey US support for the road-map peace plan and act as a US vote of confidence in Mr. Abbas.

Palestinians say the crucial point isn't that Abbas will enter the White House, but what he leaves it with.

Abbas will ask Mr. Bush to demand that Israel stick to a firm schedule of peace-related moves, say Palestinian legislators. But the central issue on the prime minister's agenda will be Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. At risk, say analysts and lawmakers, is the future of Abbas's government, the current cease-fire, and, by extension, the road map.

"Prisoners are the highest issue on Abbas's agenda," says Qadoura Fares, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "The Americans are aware of the importance of prisoners to the Palestinian public. Now they've got to be aware that the issue of prisoners could be a great threat to the Palestinian government."

The meetings between Bush and Abbas and Mr. Sharon come as progress on the road map has stalled, with both sides demanding gestures from the other, hoping US pressure will succeed where they have failed.

It's a dynamic that is drawing the White House ever deeper into the conflict here, and which prompted the formation of a US team to monitor implementation of the road map. Originally planned as a 10- man team, the US is reportedly considering expanding its staff to 60 people.

"The overall atmosphere right now is that neither the Palestinian Authority or Israel is ready to agree on anything without US involvement because the price is always paid in Washington, whether it's financial or political," says Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Security Affairs. "The issue for the Palestinians is that they can't influence Israel without effective intervention by the US."

Both sides accuse the other of failure to abide by requirements of the road map, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Palestinians say that Israel has not improved humanitarian conditions, or stopped "actions undermining trust," a phrase that encompasses everything from home demolitions to arrests. Israel is also obliged to dismantle the outposts used to expand settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon on Monday pledged to parliament to remove these outposts, but Palestinians note that of the nearly 20 outposts dismantled shortly after the road map's June 4 launch, almost every one has been rebuilt.

Israelis have mirror complaints about Palestinian compliance with their road-map obligations, particularly with respect to the three- month cease-fire by militant groups that began June 29. …

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