- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

TEL AVIV — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, still smarting from the political damage of a shooting that killed three Israelis last weekend, will meet with President Bush today in the hope of obtaining leverage on Israel for concessions that would bolster the Palestinian government ahead of a legislative election, analysts and officials said.

The first meeting of the two leaders since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is likely to focus on disputes from the pullback, such as opening a border crossing with Egypt that is the only link between Gaza and the outside world. At the same time, Palestinians hope the United States will be able to nudge both sides back to peace negotiations.

But Mr. Abbas is likely to be pressured by U.S. officials to do more to rein in Palestinian militants, On Sunday, gunmen fatally shot a teenager and two women in their 20s at a West Bank road junction. An initial claim of responsibility by militants affiliated with Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party was later denied. But it showed the Palestinian leader’s limited success in ending violence against Israel, even among his own supporters.

“It embarrassed him, and will make it more difficult for him to convince the president that his policy is the right one,” said Palestinian lawmaker Kadoura Fares.

The White House meeting comes at a time a wave of Israeli arrests of Hamas election activists in the West Bank has raised doubts that the parliamentary vote can go ahead in just three months.

Israel opposes Hamas participation in the elections because the Islamic militant group refused to give up its weapons. Hundreds of activists have been detained for security reasons. The United States wants Hamas to be disarmed as a condition for entering politics, but has not echoed Israel’s criticism of the election.

Mr. Abbas, who is visiting the White House for the second time since his election in January, will try to convince Washington of the merit of his strategy of waiting to disarm Hamas until after the militants have joined the political establishment. The White House will have to balance the stance with Israeli demands for the Palestinian leader to immediately dismantle armed groups.

“They have to find some formula with Abu Mazen in Washington,” said Palestinian political analyst Said Zeidani, referring to Mr. Abbas by his nickname.

“The Americans don’t want to find themselves in a position in which the elections were postponed because of placing conditions about the participation of Hamas.”

The Palestinian leader will need U.S. help in resolving a dispute over the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a passage where Israel wants to retain some oversight. He is also likely to urge Washington to mediate talks with Israel on opening an overland passage linking Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas also will be looking for U.S. help in persuading Israel to lift restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. Washington already criticized this week an Israeli ban on Palestinian motorists after the drive-by shooting.

But the Palestinians want Israel to remove dozens of roadblocks around the West Bank and to make good on a promise to withdraw from Palestinian cities. The Palestinians also want Israel to release hundreds of prisoners. The gestures would count as key achievements to show the Palestinian public ahead of the legislative vote.

Ultimately, Palestinians also are hoping the United States will signal a push to restart the “road map” peace initiative, a blueprint that envisions a Palestinian state within two years. After being sidelined by Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the decision to build a separation barrier through the West Bank, Mr. Abbas needs to show progress toward a resumption of peace negotiations.

“People are looking for clarity,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian commentator. “We need to get moving on this road map. The cars are stuck.”



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