Bush called on to break deadlock over road map

JERUSALEM -- A few weeks into the truce that halted almost three years of Mideast fighting, Israelis and Palestinians are deadlocked over what to do next. Now, their leaders head to Washington, hoping to win pressure on the other side to take difficult steps.

Expectations are particularly great on the Palestinian side: Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- popular internationally, accepted by Israel, but weak among his people -- must return with results or face possible ouster.

The unusual twin summits -- President Bush meets Abbas on Friday and Israeli premier Ariel Sharon four days later -- also reflect the urgency felt by an administration heavily invested in the "road map" peace plan. It can ill afford to see the plan collapse, especially in light of troubles over Iraq.

Bush faces a Solomonic challenge in resolving the tangle of disagreements over the plan, a blueprint for ending violence that started in September 2000 and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005. He'll have to referee in cases where the sides read the road map differently, and perhaps also decide which provisions might be eased or eliminated.

Violence has lessened dramatically since the main Palestinian militant groups declared a temporary halt to attacks on June 29. Israel responded by ceasing most military activity and pulling troops out of parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Progress stuck

But progress is stuck: Israel refuses to take further steps, especially troop pullouts and a settlement freeze, until the Palestinians crack down on militant groups. Both sides want the other to move first, although the road map calls for actions in parallel.

"This is an important week," said Sharon aide Avi Pazner. The prime minister, he said, will ask Bush "to press ahead with getting the Palestinians to comply with the road map, especially dismantling and disarming terror organizations."

Palestinians have the opposite view. Abbas "cannot come back empty-handed," said legislator Saeb Erekat. Palestinians want Israel to commit to timetables for freezing settlements, withdrawing troops and freeing prisoners.

Failure, says Information Minister Nabil Amr, could result in Abbas' ouster by parliament.

Abbas, whose White House visit will be the first for a Palestinian leader since January 2001, will tell Bush that too little has changed on the ground for Palestinians, officials said.

Israel still controls most towns and impedes movement in the West Bank with roadblocks, and the road map says Israel should gradually pull out of the autonomous Palestinian areas it occupied during recent fighting.

Abbas will also note that Israel has not dismantled the roughly 100 settlement outposts -- many unpopulated -- erected in the West Bank over the past two years. Neither has it declared a freeze on building in the 150 veteran West Bank and Gaza settlements. Both are road map requirements that are politically and ideologically tough for Sharon.

In addition, Palestinian officials say, Abbas will tell Bush that Israel's holding of an estimated 7,700 Palestinian prisoners has a corrosive effect on Palestinian opinion and is a huge impediment to progress.

Although the road map does not directly deal with prisoners, it has emerged as a key issue. Israel has agreed to release only a few hundred, while militant groups warn that without a mass release they will resume attacks, which would likely lead to Israeli military strikes and bury the road map effort.

Israeli officials say Sharon will push for a Palestinian crackdown on militants. The road map calls for "dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure (including) confiscation of illegal weapons" -- which Israel sees as wiping out Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Brigades and other groups that killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and shootings.

The Palestinians say they have confiscated some weapons in Gaza from individuals, and this week reissued a 1998 decree that outlaws groups espousing change through violence. But Abbas says a forceful crackdown risks civil war and is out of the question.

"For us to weaken (the militants) we need first political power, and we will gain ... public support only after Israel starts implementing the agreement," says Palestinian Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib.

The truce declared by the militants is temporary -- three months for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and six months for Yasser Arafat's Fatah. As long as militant groups retain the potential to carry out attacks, the Israelis fear pulling out of Palestinian towns could leave them to again become havens for militants attacking Israel.

The issue is also relevant to the prisoner release demand, Israelis say: Why should they replenish the ranks of organizations which the Palestinians are leaving armed and ready to attack?

At the core lies a philosophical dispute. Israel feels terrorists must be punished, while the Palestinian Authority seems to want an amnesty for them.

"We had a resistance, we had a war," said Khatib. "Judgment starts from the beginning of the presence of an agreement."

The United States has not yet taken a clear stand on these questions, and Bush may find it difficult to sidestep them much longer.

"If (Bush) doesn't use pressure this time, on both sides, his own interests in the area will suffer," wrote Gideon Samet in Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Which of the two leaders would bear the brunt of Bush?

The president has had a close relationship with Sharon, whose tough-on-terror stand appeals to Bush. But Abbas holds an ace: Neither Bush nor Sharon want to witness his fall, because his appointment and emergence as a possible Arafat replacement is the main achievement they can point to after the years of violence.