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As Sharon, Abbas Visits Approach, Both Leaders Hope for Real Dividends

Ariel Sharon’s visit next month to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, is guaranteed plenty of pomp and circumstance. There won’t be much substance, though, until a week or so later, at a lower-key meeting between Bush and Mahmoud Abbas in Washington.

That’s when Bush will assess whether the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president are getting enough dividends from the revived peace process to survive serious challenges to their leadership.

Sharon and Abbas hope that progress in the peace talks keep at bay political opponents who are mounting challenges — in Sharon’s case, to his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in July, and in Abbas’ case, in legislative elections planned for the same month.

Palestinians say they’re not receiving enough concessions to beat back a challenge that could bring the terrorist group Hamas into Abbas’ government. Chief among their complaints is that Israel is expanding West Bank settlements in defiance of its commitment to a settlement freeze under the internationally backed “road map” peace plan.

“They’re building like crazy,” said Edward Abington, a lobbyist who represents the Palestinian Authority in Washington. “The Israelis are making many meaningful statements, but the Palestinians don’t see any meaningful policy that backs it up.”

The Bush administration appears to be paying attention. Bush’s top Middle East advisers — Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser, and David Welch, the top State Department envoy to the region — arrived in Jerusalem on Tuesday and plan to raise the issue of settlement expansion.

“They are there on previously scheduled travel, but they will certainly have the opportunity or certainly use the opportunity to raise this issue with the Israeli government, to seek clarifications and to, I think, make the point that U.S. policy on this issue is very clear,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, referring to Israel’s recent announcement that it will carry out old plans to build 3,500 apartments in the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim outside Jerusalem. “There needs to be an end to settlement activity.”

Speaking on background, U.S. officials are even tougher: They believe Abbas has taken “concrete steps” to fulfill anti-terrorist obligations he made at a summit with Sharon and the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders last month, though he has not moved on the Palestinians’ central road map commitment to dismantle terrorist groups.

The official referred to increased P.A. policing of the Gaza Strip, which has led to a sharp reduction in missile attacks on Israel; and a cease-fire Abbas negotiated with terrorist groups, which has helped — in conjunction with Israel’s policy of retaliation — to reduce terrorist attacks.

Additionally, outrage this month at revelations by an Israeli investigator that successive Israeli governments covertly financed unauthorized settlement outposts led to unusually strong words from the State Department, which called on Israel to “meet its previous pledges on stopping construction of unauthorized outposts.”

Such statements usually do not remind Israel pointedly that it is lagging on its obligations. Officials also say it’s significant that the statement was drafted by Abrams, who is considered Israel’s best friend in the Bush administration.

On the other hand, other administration officials are strongly sympathetic to Israel’s claim that Sharon has enough on his plate right now trying to guide the withdrawal from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank to its July 20 launch.

Sharon barely has parliamentary support to pass the budget — something he must do by March 31 to avert new elections — never mind to force violent confrontations with settlers before the first full withdrawals later this year.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, said Israel deserved at least as much understanding as Abbas has received for co-opting terrorist groups instead of confronting them.

“I do appreciate what the PLO representative said about the Palestinians trying to do everything to avert civil war among themselves,” Ayalon said at a Capitol Hill forum this month, where he appeared for the first time with Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Washington. “You also have to be mindful of the explosive situation in Israel, and we do not want to be in a situation of a civil war with our own communities and brothers, so things have to be dealt with in a manner which will be both timely and effective.”

There may be other ways, however, for the United States to pay Abbas dividends without forcing Sharon into difficult concessions.

One outlet would be the $200 million in immediate aid to the Palestinians that the U.S. House of Representatives approved earlier this month. The cash is much greater than any recent U.S. handout, but the House has attached provisions that channel the money through nongovernmental organizations. That measure was prompted by past P.A. corruption, but it slows the process.

The Senate might remove obstacles to direct aid, something Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged Tuesday when he met with U.S. Jewish officials in Washington. The era of corruption ended with P.A. President’s Yasser Arafat’s death last year, he told them, adding that Abbas’ government is trustworthy.

“The king said it was important for Palestinians to see that President Abbas receives money for the positions he had taken,” said Marie Abrams, who attended the meeting in her capacity as chairwoman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Direct aid reaps faster political dividends, said Larry Garber, who until last year was the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator in the West Bank and Gaza and now is executive director of the New Israel Fund.

“In 2003, when we wanted to move money quickly, we created a rapid road repair project, we repaired 70 kilometers of road, working with officials in the Palestinian Authority,” which not only facilitated transport but created jobs, he said. “That got rave reviews.”

Such steps will be high on the agenda when Bush and Sharon meet at Crawford on April 11, Sharon’s tenth visit with Bush but his first to the ranch. Bush reserves such invitations for leaders he admires — and, often, from whom he wants to extract concessions.

On the surface, observers can expect to see ranch tours, open-shirt photo-ops and farming patter, since Sharon also owns a ranch.

What goes on behind the scenes won’t be clear until Abbas arrives two or three weeks later for a meeting in Washington.

“There are advisers to Abbas who are telling him, ‘If this will be a failure, it’s better if you don’t go,’ ” Abington said.

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