- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

TEL AVIV — Palestinian officials and analysts were disappointed that the meeting between President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington on Thursday failed to produce any new momentum behind peace negotiations with Israel, but took solace in the U.S. acceptance of Palestinian legislative elections that would include the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Mr. Abbas’ first White House visit since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September concluded without any timetable from the United States to begin implementing its “road map” initiative, a blueprint for talks calling for Palestinian statehood within two years.

Instead, Mr. Bush’s refusal to commit to the establishment of a state by the end of 2009 will be reverberating throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

“President Bush is clear in supporting a Palestinian state, which is good, but the way to reflect seriousness toward that step is by calling for a return to negotiations,” said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib.

“I would expect that, after disengagement, Americans would declare an end to the unilateral moves and invite the parties back to the negotiating table.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Abbas could chalk up a victory on the January parliamentary vote, which has become a bone of contention with Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s administration has argued in recent weeks that armed groups such as Hamas should be banned from the balloting.

While Washington also has said that militias shouldn’t be part of Palestinian political life, the Bush administration is not insisting that Hamas give up its weapons before running for office.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the United States and the Palestinians stand “shoulder to shoulder” on the upcoming vote, which he said will be “the turning point” for Palestinians.

Mr. Abbas hopes that once Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas are brought into the political establishment, it will be easier to exert leverage over gunmen and put an end to the anarchy that limits the authority of the government in the West Bank and Gaza.

The meeting with Mr. Bush failed to increase pressure on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, limit Jewish settlement expansion or ease travel restrictions on Palestinians. The gestures would improve the quality of life of Palestinians, as well as boost support for Mr. Abbas’ struggling administration.

After the Palestinian Authority helped coordinate a peaceful withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians expected that the United States and Israel would reward them. Palestinians complain that Gaza’s border with Egypt remains closed, and there’s no link to the West Bank. In the absence of such gestures, the optimism generated by the pullback is fading, analysts say.

“There was nothing concrete. I think the [Washington meeting] was not successful, Abbas did not get a major achievement,” said Omar Shaban, an economic consultant.

“What about the reality of the Palestinian people, the economics, the settlements, and the crossings with Gaza? He got nothing to sell to the people.”



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