- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, unable to move forward on the “road map” on their own, have begun jockeying for position ahead of separate meetings in Washington this week with President Bush.

“I think it’s clear that we’ve come to a point where both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are only willing to put their cards on the table in front of the American president,” said Scott Lasensky of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Abbas, who is in a politically weaker position than his counterpart, arrived in Cairo yesterday at the start of an intensive round of international diplomacy leading up to his meeting with Mr. Bush on Friday.

Mr. Sharon is to meet with the U.S. president separately on July 29, following a flurry of meetings by top Israeli government officials with foreign ministers of the European Union.

The union, partnered with the United States, Russia and the United Nations, forged the so-called “road map” to peace, which calls for an end to violence and a Palestinian state by 2005.

But with the Middle East peace process increasingly turning into a trilateral operation with the United States at the apex, all eyes will be on what Mr. Bush will be able to extract from the two leaders.

Sunday’s meeting between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas in Jerusalem — the fourth meeting in recent weeks — produced no progress on a key dispute over the release of roughly 7,700 Palestinians in jail, or other issues.

“They both seem somewhat restrained and hesitant to make any major commitments outside the gaze of the American president,” said Mr. Lasensky.

But, he added, “I think we can and we should” expect something to come out of the meetings, such as limited action by Mr. Sharon on the prisoner issue, limited Israeli redeployment in the territories or releasing Palestinian tax revenues.

Israel has approved the release of 350 prisoners, holding back on a mass release as well as further withdrawals from West Bank towns until the Palestinians start disarming political groups behind the deadly attacks on Israelis.

Political decisions on other issues such as Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories are considered less likely in the near term.

Mr. Abbas appears to have far less in his back pocket to pull out at the White House, having spent much of his political capital by standing side-by-side with Mr. Sharon and outlawing incitements to violence.

“These are risky moves, and he will be expecting something in return. He’s looking for something to come home with from the White House,” said Mr. Lasensky.

At the very least, Mr. Abbas will be able to demonstrate to those at home that there is a new U.S.-Palestinian relationship independent of Israel.

Mr. Bush also needs something to show for the United States’ high-stakes involvement and his personal commitment to the fragile peace process.

The president has built up a tremendous reservoir of good will in Israel with his unstinting support over the past two years, and will use some of it to secure some commitments from Mr. Sharon on what short- and medium-term steps he will take to nudge the road map forward.

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