- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

JERUSALEM — The Palestinian parliament could vote Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas from power unless he wins substantial Israeli concessions in upcoming talks in Washington, a top Palestinian official said yesterday.

Mr. Abbas, who is supported by the United States and Israel but lacks popularity among Palestinians, is under heavy pressure to make progress in talks tomorrow with President Bush.

The Palestinians want Mr. Bush to press Israel to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners, stop construction of settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and take other steps.

If Mr. Abbas “is unable to achieve any progress on these … points, we are sure that he will face difficulties on the Palestinian street and inside the [legislature],” Information Minister Nabil Amr said.

Mr. Amr said parliament would convene when Mr. Abbas returns from Washington to assess his progress and “discuss again giving him its confidence or not.”

Mr. Amr, who is part of the team holding negotiations with Israel and one of the new members of the Palestinian Cabinet, has been a critic of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and is considered an ally of Mr. Abbas.

Israel and the United States are interested in keeping Mr. Abbas in power since they supported his appointment in April and see him as a replacement for Mr. Arafat, whom they accuse of encouraging violence.

A temporary truce by the main militant groups on June 29 has greatly diminished the violence of the previous 33 months, but progress has stalled on the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan that would lead to a Palestinian state by 2005. The militants have also threatened to abandon the truce unless prisoners are released.

Mr. Bush is to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on July 29, and both Israel and the Palestinians are hoping he will break the deadlock.

Israel has refused so far to meet Palestinian demands until Mr. Abbas’ government begins disarming militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis. The Palestinians, however, fear a confrontation with militants would lead to civil war and prefer to disarm them through negotiation.

The release of prisoners has emerged as a key Palestinian demand. Israel holds about 7,700 Palestinians in jail, but has agreed to release only several hundred.

Yesterday, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yonatan Peled said the first prisoners would be released within days.

He said Israel has a list of about 400 candidates for imminent release, “and we are confident that these prisoners will be released within a week, maybe in one single move or maybe in two steps.”

He did not say whether any of those freed would be from the Islamic militant groups Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Freeing some from these groups would boost Mr. Abbas, who wants them to maintain their truce.

Mr. Peled said Israel would consider releasing prisoners who had not been implicated in violence, “regardless of their political or terrorist organization affiliation.”

A committee of Israeli government ministers met yesterday to discuss the releases, but deferred a decision on whether to free members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad until another discussion of the issue in the full Cabinet.

A government statement said Mr. Sharon had told the committee prisoner releases would be made in small batches, and “weighed against decisive Palestinian action in the security field.”

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