- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

TEL AVIV — Israeli officials expect to come under great pressure to make good on a promise to dismantle dozens of illegal settler outposts in the West Bank when they meet with President Bush today.

The action will be perhaps the most divisive among a number of confidence-building concessions Mr. Bush will ask of Israel and the Palestinians in an attempt to breathe new life into the peace process initiated in Annapolis last year.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, will be pressed to finally get tough with militants from his own Fatah party who are still planning attacks on Israelis.

Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made their own effort yesterday to push the process forward, instructing their negotiating teams to begin talks on core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But otherwise there has been little progress by either side toward carrying out commitments under the U.S. “road map” peace plan.

“Bush is going to press [for progress] with whatever power he has; otherwise nothing will happen, and the U.S. will be humiliated,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University.

“What is at stake is the last chance of this White House to show that it can mean business when it comes to peace in the Middle East, and to literally sit on the Palestinians and the Israelis to simultaneously withdraw from some of the settlements despite the coalition difficulties, and for Palestinians to take more forceful steps against terror.”

Both sides recommitted themselves in Annapolis to carry out their obligations under the road map, which calls in the first phase for Israel to lift restrictions on movements in the West Bank, pull its army back from around Palestinian towns and freeze all new settlement activity.

Israeli security services are likely to protest any attempt to act on the first two promises, which would be seen as going soft on terrorists. However, the government may be ready to move against some 100 settler outposts, which Israel itself calls illegal and has in the past pledged to dismantle.

Such action would carry its own political perils because right-wing parties in Mr. Olmert’s coalition have threatened to quit the government in response. Until now, the government has played for time, saying it prefers a negotiated evacuation and complaining that it faces legal challenges from the settlers.

However, a highly public push from Mr. Bush — who has proven himself to be Israel’s most important and trusted ally — would provide Mr. Olmert with needed political cover.

“Bush is going to want to hear what is the Israeli plan for removing the outposts. He’s going to want to hear details,” said Gershon Baskin, a co-president of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.

Washington has already set up a team to monitor the implementation of the road map. Some analysts said Mr. Bush might even make public mention of a deadline for outpost evacuation.

When asked how Israel would respond to such pressure, an Israeli official stammered.

“This is an issue that Israel is dealing with in the framework of the law,” he said. “We realize we must follow through on our commitments and the rule of law will prevail. We look forward to the dialogue.”

On the Palestinian side, Mr. Bush is expected to press Mr. Abbas to get tough with militant members of his own party who are still involved with attacks on Israelis.

A plan to offer the militants amnesty in return for a commitment to nonviolence seems to have faltered. Just a few weeks ago, Israel blamed members of Fatah for the killing of two off-duty soldiers.

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