- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

The White House yesterday welcomed a package of Israeli goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians, improving the prospects for a cordial summit today between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Sharon announced Sunday that Israel would close several checkpoints and free more than 500 Palestinian prisoners, including members of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, amid a continued pullout of troops from some Palestinian areas.

An Israeli official who spoke on the condition he not be identified said he expected additional gestures but could give no time frame.

“We welcome steps like this that improve the relationship between Israelis and the Palestinian Authority and help facilitate progress toward peace,” White House chief spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.

Palestinian officials say the prisoner releases are not enough and want thousands more, but the White House appeared to back the limited releases.

“No one should want anyone released that had blood on their hands,” Mr. McClellan said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmound Abbas, at a similar meeting with Mr. Bush last week, urged the American president to press Mr. Sharon to make concessions on prisoner releases and other issues.

Sunday’s Israeli actions were meant “to remove those issues from discussion in Washington,” said Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Sharon held preparatory talks yesterday with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and met in the evening with officials of the American-Israel Political Action Committee.

Tonight he is set to dine with Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as several other senators. He also will meet with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell before going home tomorrow.

Israel’s erection of a fence around the Palestinian areas is likely to be one of the thorniest topics in this week’s meetings.

In a press conference with Mr. Abbas last week, Mr. Bush called the fence “a problem,” saying: “It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank.”

Yesterday, Israel canceled plans to celebrate the completion of the first section of the fence in the north.

On Friday, the country said it was open to more dialogue about the fence, but maintained that the fence’s purpose was improved security, not politically isolating the Palestinians.

Israeli troops meanwhile fired rubber bullets at demonstrators protesting the building of the fence, injuring five persons including one American.

The uncovering of a dead Israeli soldier yesterday in a grapevine between two Israeli Arab villages threatened to unsettle about a month of relative calm in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli officials blamed the death on Palestinian militants.

Mr. Sharon’s U.S. visit, his first since October and eighth since taking office in February 2001, was originally planned for the end of the summer, but was moved up at the president’s request to come right after Mr. Abbas’ visit.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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