Sunday, July 27, 2003

Palestinian Authority officials are pronouncing Mahmoud Abbas’ White House meeting with President Bush on Friday, his first as PA prime minister, a success, and it was in a number of important ways. It’s certainly true that Mr. Abbas could not have been terribly happy over some of Mr. Bush’s statements (in particular, his forceful rejection of the Palestinian leader’s call for Israel to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including ones convicted of murder, from Israeli jails). But the reality is that, thus far, Mr. Abbas has managed to garner U.S. support without having to do very much in return — particularly on the critical issue of disarming terrorist organizations.

At Friday’s White House meeting, for example, Mr. Bush (who will host Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House tomorrow), criticized Israel for building a security wall in the West Bank in an effort to make it more difficult for terrorists to cross into the Jewish state, suggesting that the wall would make it “very difficult to develop confidence” between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Bush, noting that Washington recently provided a $20 million economic development grant to the Palestinians, also announced that Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans will visit PA-controlled areas in the fall to examine “how to build a solid economic foundation for a free and sovereign Palestinian state.”

For its part, Mr. Sharon’s government has taken numerous steps in an effort to bolster Mr. Abbas’ precarious standing among his own people, in the hope that this will put him in a better position to tackle the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure behind the more than 90 suicide bombings directed at Israel since September 29, 2000. Yesterday, the Israeli Cabinet by a 14-9 vote approved the prime minister’s plan to release approximately 100 Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners who have not committed terrorist crimes (this comes in addition to 400 prisoners who are scheduled to be released this week.) Also, yesterday Israel removed three West Bank roadblocks it set up to prevent terrorist infiltration.

Moreover, Israel announced that it will transfer two other West Bank cities to PA control, that it will provide more than 8,000 additional employment permits for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians in Israel; that tourists will be able to enter Bethlehem; that it will transfer additional tax revenues to the PA; and that it will continue dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts. In anticipation of tomorrow’s meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon may indicate a willingness to re-evaluate the need for the security fence if the security situation improves on the ground.

Thus far, however, the central problem remains Mr. Abbas’s adamant refusal to consider (at least publically), using force to disarm the most violent Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated with PA Chairman Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization. Mr. Bush made the point quite forcefully on Friday, telling Mr. Abbas that “we must make sure that any terrorist activity is rooted out” in order to see to it that the negotiations go forward. The president understands very well that it would be intolerable to have yet another explosion of terror when the current cease-fire (hudna) ends in September.

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