Prisoner release tests Mideast 'map'

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abbas meets President Bush Friday.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas meets Friday in Washington with President Bush, the first White House visit by a Palestinian leader in three years.

The meeting, along with one slated for next week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is meant to convey US support for the road-map peace plan and act as a US vote of confidence in Mr. Abbas.

Palestinians say the crucial point isn't that Abbas will enter the White House, but what he leaves it with.

Abbas will ask Mr. Bush to demand that Israel stick to a firm schedule of peace-related moves, say Palestinian legislators. But the central issue on the prime minister's agenda will be Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. At risk, say analysts and lawmakers, is the future of Abbas's government, the current cease-fire, and, by extension, the road map.

"Prisoners are the highest issue on Abbas's agenda," says Qadoura Fares, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "The Americans are aware of the importance of prisoners to the Palestinian public. Now they've got to be aware that the issue of prisoners could be a great threat to the Palestinian government."

The meetings between Bush and Abbas and Mr. Sharon come as progress on the road map has stalled, with both sides demanding gestures from the other, hoping US pressure will succeed where they have failed.

It's a dynamic that is drawing the White House ever deeper into the conflict here, and which prompted the formation of a US team to monitor implementation of the road map. Originally planned as a 10-man team, the US is reportedly considering expanding its staff to 60 people.

"The overall atmosphere right now is that neither the Palestinian Authority or Israel is ready to agree on anything without US involvement because the price is always paid in Washington, whether it's financial or political," says Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Security Affairs. "The issue for the Palestinians is that they can't influence Israel without effective intervention by the US."

Both sides accuse the other of failure to abide by requirements of the road map, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Palestinians say that Israel has not improved humanitarian conditions, or stopped "actions undermining trust," a phrase that encompasses everything from home demolitions to arrests. Israel is also obliged to dismantle the outposts used to expand settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon on Monday pledged to parliament to remove these outposts, but Palestinians note that of the nearly 20 outposts dismantled shortly after the road map's June 4 launch, almost every one has been rebuilt.

Israelis have mirror complaints about Palestinian compliance with their road-map obligations, particularly with respect to the three-month cease-fire by militant groups that began June 29.

"There isn't a cease-fire, there's a reduction in attacks," says Barry Rubin, a professor at Bar Ilan University. He cites the kidnapping of a taxi driver and a bombing in northern Israel in early July that killed a woman. "Abbas has refused to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad," he adds, referring to a statement the prime minister made in Cairo on Wednesday.

Mr. Rubin says a central issue facing Sharon in his talks with Bush is that of reciprocity. "If we get a real cease-fire, what do we give for it," he says. "On the question of prisoners, Israel will release some, but it's not an obligation, and it's not part of the road map."

Israelis charge that Palestinian militants are using the cease-fire to rearm, and that releasing prisoners would simply bolster terrorist groups. Even so, while Sharon is in the US, Israel will release 450 of 7,730 detainees it holds, a gesture in response to US pressure that is directed more toward Bush than Abbas.

Palestinian officials say a larger release is vital. Militant groups have tied continuation of the cease-fire to a release.

Mainstream officials say prisoners played a large part in organizing the cease-fire and could drum up support for the road map. And Abbas, who has no natural constituency within Palestinian politics, needs the popular support a release would give him.

"The prisoner question is crucial," says Mr. Zananiri. "If they're kept in custody, it's hard to convince the masses to support the road map when nothing else is happening on the ground. Israel is not pulling out of the cities, checkpoints are still there, life is still catastrophic for many people, and they need moral encouragement. This is why it's so crucial and important."

Mr. Fares, who himself spent 14 years in Israeli jails, argues that former prisoners can mobilize support for peace with Israel. "You are able much more than others to play a role in the peace process," he says, sitting in the Beit Jala offices of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, a group he helped form.

Fares, released as a result of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, isn't upbeat about the prisoner talks. "The Israelis aren't serious," he says.

Many Israelis think that's a good thing. "It's crazy to release prisoners," says Shlomi Azulai, a young Israeli from Jerusalem who survived a suicide bombing in March 2002 that killed a close friend and 13 others. "Think of all the mothers, kids, fathers of people who died. This is a big mistake by the Israeli government."

Referring to Israel's assertion that it won't release prisoners who have killed Israelis, Mr. Azulai snorts. "There's no such thing as 'no blood on your hands.' If you didn't do it, you made the bomb or helped the bomber get to us."

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