- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are set to meet next week for the first time since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but the summit isn’t expected to jump-start movement toward new peace negotiations, analysts said.

Tentatively scheduled for Tuesday in Jerusalem, the summit would mark the third time the leaders have met this year and comes days before an Abbas visit to the U.S. to meet with President Bush.

Although the leaders will invoke the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, Israeli and Palestinian elections scheduled for next year are likely to overshadow any dramatic breakthroughs in talks in the coming months.

Instead, the two leaders may pursue a modest agreement on gestures aimed at loosening restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that would pose a minimal security risk to Israel. These moves could yield electoral dividends for both politicians.

Mr. Abbas will ask Mr. Sharon to make good on a series of promises from previous meetings: lifting roadblocks and withdrawing from Palestinian cities in the West Bank, releasing prisoners and opening an international border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, considered to be the only link between the coastal strip and the outside world.

Such concessions would bolster the sagging popularity of Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party in the weeks ahead of an electoral showdown with Islamist militants from Hamas. At the end of last month, Israeli troops arrested dozens of Hamas election workers and candidates for municipal office, and many saw the move as a boon for Hamas.

“Israeli behavior needs to contribute to an atmosphere of hope,” said Kadoura Fares, a Palestinian legislator who warned against Israeli intervention in the elections. “They don’t need to embarrass the Palestinian Authority.”

Mr. Sharon will demand that Mr. Abbas make more of an effort to disarm Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, and to foil attacks on Israel. Many think Mr. Abbas is too weak to carry out the task.

After Israel’s universal withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli prime minister and his aides have said it is time for the Palestinians to take dramatic action to support the peace process.

“We are ready to provide Abu Mazen with gestures, but it requires Abu Mazen to help himself,” said Ra’anan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman who referred to Mr. Abbas by his more common name. “A new reality has descended on the territories. They understand that if they don’t fight Hamas, Hamas will finish it for good.”

Mr. Gissin said that aides to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will meet in the next few days to set the agenda for the meeting, which was postponed from last Sunday after a flare-up in violence in the Gaza Strip. The leaders last met four months ago in a summit that focused on coordinating Israel’s exit from Gaza but left Palestinian participants frustrated after they came away with few concessions.

The first stage of the road map calls for the Palestinians to dismantle terrorist groups while Israel institutes a freeze on settlement activity and pullback from Palestinian cities.

Both sides have been reluctant to implement these moves, but now that Mr. Sharon has survived the disengagement and an attempt to oust him from the leadership of his party, he may have enough political capital to offer the Palestinians economic concessions such as a removal of security roadblocks in the West Bank and an ease of traffic across Gaza’s closed border.

“It’s very clear that with both the Israelis and Palestinians entering an election season, instead of the focus on basic road map issues, the focus will shift to economic questions,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide