Sun, Jul 13, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Abbas under pressure as Sharon announces talks

AP , JERUSALEM

Israeli bulldozers destroy a Palestinian house near the border with Egypt at Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday.

PHOTO: AFP

Palestinians warned that the rule of US-supported Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas could collapse if Israel does not take more concrete steps toward peace, and Israeli officials announced on Friday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will meet with US President George W. Bush in Washington in July.

The Sharon-Bush meeting was initially expected to take place almost two months later, and the change suggested a sense of urgency about the halting implementation of the "road map" peace plan that aims to end nearly three years of fighting and create a Palestinian state by 2005.

After troop pullouts from parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem last week, Israel is refusing to hand over more Palestinian towns until the Palestinian Authority moves to disarm militant groups; Abbas is highly reluctant to do this and has said he will only try to accomplish it by persuasion.

There is also a major disagreement over Israel's refusal to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners accused of involvement in terrorism -- although this issue is not referred to in the road map, launched by US President George W. Bush last month.

The deadlock is apparently eroding support for Abbas within his own Fatah movement, where some are starting to see him as someone who cannot wrest concessions from Israel. Abbas has the strong backing of Washington which sees him as an alternative to Yasser Arafat.

Earlier this week, Abbas briefly threatened to resign as prime minister unless Fatah endorsed his handling of contacts with Israel. He also quit the Fatah Central Committee, although his resignation was rejected.

"The main reason for the argument is the lack of achievements on the part of Abbas," said Qadoura Fares, a leading Fatah member in Ramallah.

Meanwhile, an Israeli official confirmed that the White House asked Sharon to come to Washington in late July instead of September and said the change was due in part to the stalemate in the peace process.

Abbas is also expected to visit Washington separately this summer, Israel radio reported. However, Abbas is under pressure from some Fatah officials to refuse such an invitation until Israel restores freedom of movement for Arafat; Israel's position is that Arafat can leave his Ramallah headquarters, where he has been holed up for a year and a half, but he may not be allowed back.

"I am really worried," said Saeb Erekat, a senior member of Fatah. "I believe the road map constitutes a good opportunity. If it goes down because of the deadlock, God help the Palestinians and the Israelis."

Abbas has repeatedly called on Israel to release the estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds and to remove unauthorized outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Militant Palestinian groups are threatening to cancel a ceasefire they declared almost two weeks ago if Israel does not comply.

But Israel says it cannot release prisoners who are members of the Islamic militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups, or those who participated in violent attacks. Earlier this week it offered to release several hundred.

Israel TV reported that Abbas spoke by phone on Thursday with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and pleaded with him to release more prisoners. The report said Mofaz suggested to Abbas that he might make progress on the issue during a planned summit with Sharon next week.

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