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Ahead of Bush Meetings, Two Sides Hope U.S. Pressure Will Spur Peace

As the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process inches forward, leaders of both sides are looking to upcoming audiences with President Bush to exert pressure on the other and give the “road map” peace plan some momentum.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, each will seek to persuade the American leader to lean on the other side to move faster — and Bush will be ready to lean on both, Israeli analysts believe.

With domestic criticism growing regarding America’s imbroglio in Iraq, Israeli analysts believe Bush wants progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front to help justify the strike against Saddam Hussein.

If toppling the Iraqi dictator is seen to have paved the way for an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation — and, with it, a better chance of pacifying the Middle East as a whole — the administration can argue that the war was worthwhile, the argument goes.

Bush, therefore, will want to resolve as many of the disputed issues on the table as he can. For the Palestinians, most important are releasing prisoners, dismantling illegal settlement outposts, freezing construction of Israeli settlements and Israel’s West Bank security fence, and easing restrictions on Palestinian civilians.

Israel will ask Bush to demand that the Palestinians dismantle terrorist groups and decommission their weapons, and not make do with the groups’ tenuous cease-fire.

Most analysts agree that little progress will be made without concerted American intervention. But they note that the road map actually provides for a hands-on approach; in fact, one of the major differences between the failed Oslo process and the road map is the introduction of a third party monitoring system.

By general consensus, seeing whether the parties actually carry out their commitments has become mainly an American affair. The meetings with President Bush are part of this process.

More importantly, in their strategic thinking, both Abbas and Sharon put a premium on ties with America. Even before he took over as prime minister, Abbas advocated the use of American and international pressure on Israel, rather than terrorism, to achieve Palestinian goals.

That, he pointed out, was precisely what the Palestinians did so successfully when Benjamin Netanyahu was Israeli prime minister in the late 1990s. By and large they refrained from terrorism, won American sympathy for their plight and — through American pressure — got Israel to make major concessions in the Hebron accord of January 1997 and the Wye River agreement of October 1998.

Sharon, who is to meet with Bush on July 29, sees American support as the key to Israel’s position in the world. He believes that ties with the Bush administration must be carefully nurtured and that Israel should seek prior coordination with Washington whenever appropriate, especially in dealing with the Palestinians.

In Sharon’s view, it is absolutely vital that the Palestinian issue not be allowed to erode Israel’s ties with Washington.

Of course, there will be tactical maneuvering by both prime ministers, but their meetings with President Bush should be understood in a wider strategic context.

Abbas reportedly will highlight two key issues in his White House meeting on Friday: getting more Palestinian prisoners released and stopping construction of the security fence. He will argue that if Israel is really serious about turning over a new leaf, it should release all Palestinian prisoners, even those with “blood on their hands” — i.e., those involved in terror attacks.

In a recent interview with Israel Radio, Hisham Abdel Razek, the P.A. minister in charge of prisoner affairs, argued that even terrorists who had taken Israeli lives should be seen “as soldiers in a war of liberation,” and released in an Israeli gesture.

On the security fence, the Palestinians have noted the recent sharp differences between Israel and the United States. Israeli officials believe Abbas hopes to use the issue to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States and get the Bush administration to pressure Israel to stop building it, on the grounds that it takes in large swathes of the West Bank and thus prejudges a final territorial accommodation.

Abbas also reportedly will urge Bush to pressure Sharon to put more West Bank cities under Palestinian security control. He argues that unless he has real achievements to show the Palestinian people, his shaky position as prime minister in P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s shadow will be further weakened.

Indeed, Abbas hopes his high-profile meeting with Bush will itself give him more standing and credibility on the Palestinian street, especially since Bush has refused to meet with Arafat because of Arafat’s alleged ties to terrorism.

Abbas also apparently intends to use his American sojourn to win support in Congress, the media and the American Jewish community, and has scheduled meetings with key figures in all three groups.

According to aides, Sharon’s main goal will be to convince Bush that the Palestinians must be held to their commitments in the fight against terror. Sharon, they say, will suggest linking further prisoner releases to Palestinian dismantling of militia groups and the collection of illegal weapons.

Sharon will point out that two months have elapsed since the road map was launched at a summit in Aqaba, Jordan in early June. During that time the Palestinians have not taken serious action against Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and Israeli intelligence sources say the terrorist groups continue to arm themselves under cover of the cease-fire. It is time for the Palestinians to act, Sharon will insist.

Sharon hopes to deflect American pressure on Israel by releasing a large group of prisoners and dismantling more illegal West Bank settlement outposts before his meeting with Bush.

As for the fence, Sharon will repeat what he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week: “I am a simple farmer, and I tell you plainly the fence is only a security obstacle to stop suicide bombers, and not in any way a political border.”

Even before the Bush meeting, the prisoner issue is the hottest, and it dominated Sunday’s meeting between Sharon and Abbas in Jerusalem. Sharon agreed to Palestinian demands to set up a joint Israeli-Palestinian team to agree on a list of prisoners to be released.

Though the terrorist groups have made the prisoner release a condition of their cease-fire, it is not one of Israel’s obligations under the road map. However, Israeli officials believe that releasing prisoners may help Abbas’ public stature.

Out of sensitivity to the pressures on Abbas, Sharon has agreed to release some detainees who are members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In deference to Israeli public sentiment, however, he is refusing to release prisoners with blood on their hands.

The ensuing exchange between Sharon and Abbas at their meeting early this week highlighted the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dilemma: Who goes first?

Abbas told Sharon that if he released more prisoners, the Palestinian Authority would find it easier to move against the armed militia groups. Sharon retorted that if the Palestinians moved against the militia groups, Israel would find it easier to release more prisoners.

That’s the kind of conundrum President Bush will be trying to solve when he meets with the two leaders.

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