Sat, Jul 26, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Abbas fills Arafat's shoes in US

MIDEAST MISSION The Palestinian prime minister was on his way to Washington yesterday on a path previously well-trodden by his mentor, President Yasser Arafat


Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was to take the place of his mentor President Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian guest in the White House yesterday, initiating a new phase in Palestinian relations with the US.

Arafat, who has been cooped up for months in the West Bank town of Ramallah, has not been to Washington since US President George W. Bush took office in January 2001. Bush declared him persona non grata last year and has now pinned his plans for Middle East peace on Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen.

It is Abu Mazen's first visit to the US since taking office in April and starting to carry out the peace plan known as the "road map," which foresees an independent Palestinian state by 2005 living in peace with Israel.

The plan has run into disputes over which side should do what next. Abu Mazen wants Israel to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners, while Israel wants Abu Mazen to close down Palestinian militant groups.

Abu Mazen was expected to present Bush with a long list of Palestinian requests yesterday, including pressure on Israel to stop work on a security fence in the West Bank and freeze construction at Jewish settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will give his point of view when he sees Bush in Washington next Tuesday.

Abu Mazen told the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday evening that Israel's approach to the peace plan had shown a "pattern of hesitant implementation" from the start.

"Without bold steps we will not succeed," he added.

He argued that militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad understood his commitment to ensure that the Palestinian government is the only armed force in Palestinian areas.

But he is reluctant to meet Israeli and US demands that he disarm the militants so they never attack Israelis again.

He warned the Israelis of unspecified consequences if they do not satisfy the basic Palestinian demand that they end the occupation which began in Gaza and the West Bank in 1967.

"The burden really is on the shoulders of the Israelis ... and there are certain things that we expect them to do regarding the release of the prisoners, regarding the freezing of settlement activity, as well as the withdrawal.

"If Israel is not going to do this, then it is basically reaffirming and reinforcing the occupation, and we all know if occupation is to continue what can happen," he said.

The US sympathizes with Abu Mazen on Jewish settlements and the security fence, which the Palestinian leader brought up several times in his talks.

"There's not a lot of enthusiasm in this town for a fence ... This is a real issue, or it has the makings of becoming a real issue [between Israel and the United States], were the fence to follow the route that many people say it will," said a senior US official, who asked not to be named.

So far the US has concentrated on persuading Israel to dismantle small settler outposts in the West Bank but another official said this could change.

"We are also getting to the point of taking up the issue of settlements per se and growth," the official said.

Israel has argued that settlements should be allowed to expand to take account of demographic growth but the text of the road map says all settlement activity should cease.

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