- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

QALQILYA, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas departed yesterday for his first U.S. summit, buoyed by an Israeli promise of more prisoner releases but with little expectation of a breakthrough on peace talks.

Mr. Abbas, in office a little more than four months, will meet President Bush at the White House tomorrow with a hard-won cease-fire with Israel in jeopardy and amid pressing domestic problems.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who preceded Mr. Abbas to Washington, yesterday set the stage for the visit by announcing plans to release 400 Palestinian prisoners but vowing not to compromise on his country’s security.

“We hope [Mr. Abbas] will be able to lead his people and create a democratic, law-abiding society,” Mr. Sharon said at a convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “We are willing to help Chairman Abbas as much as we can as long as we do not risk our security.”

Security is likely to figure prominently in the talks with Mr. Bush. Recent clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants have highlighted the difficulties Mr. Abbas faces in controlling such groups.

The Palestinian leader also faces political problems a day after the Palestinian election commission signaled that a July 17 parliamentary election might be delayed. Members of his party had told The Washington Times earlier this month that such a delay was likely.

For most Palestinian analysts, the most positive feature of the meeting is that it is happening at all. After years of boycotting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died last year, the Bush administration is seen as signaling a chance for a fresh start in relations.

“At least [the Americans] are not antagonistic to [Mr. Abbas]. Palestinians are used to bias,” said Said Zeedani, a Palestinian political analyst based in Ramallah.

Mr. Abbas, who stopped yesterday in Amman, Jordan, for talks with King Abdullah II, said before his departure that his main goal in Washington was to see that Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was the beginning, not the end, of a process.

“My goal on this trip is to succeed in getting American support for the road map,” he said of a U.S.-backed peace plan that lays out steps leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“The sooner the Israelis accept that they have to get started with permanent-status negotiations,” he said, “the better it is for them and for us.”

Mr. Bush will sweeten the Palestinian leader’s visit with a $200 million aid package approved by Congress earlier this month, though the money will go to Palestinian nonprofit organizations rather than Mr. Abbas’ government. An additional $50 million is earmarked for Israel to set up crossing points into the Gaza Strip.

Aid to the Palestinian Authority would help Mr. Abbas carry out a promised consolidation of his security forces and rehabilitate the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal.

Though Mr. Abbas is a weaker leader than Mr. Arafat, his one strong suit is that Palestinians think he has international diplomatic clout that can be used to reopen negotiations with Israel. Sharing the stage with Mr. Bush will reinforce that image.

“Intelligent people on the street believe that Abbas is much more politically aware than Arafat,” said Nassim Odeh, a former council member in Qalqilya affiliated with Fatah, Mr. Abbas’ dominant political organization.

“He is skillful, and we hope that this political skillfulness will be appreciated.”

Though Mr. Abbas would benefit from U.S. pressure on Israel to ease humanitarian conditions for Palestinians and to proceed with the road map, analysts see little momentum.

“I don’t think that Bush is looking to renew the peace process in any significant way. His agenda is full. Iraq and Iran are more burning issues,” said Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

“It’s clear that both sides aren’t there to strike an agreement. … Both just want to continue the lull, the relative peace, and that’s good enough for both.”

• Abraham Rabinovich contributed to this report in Jerusalem.

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