Much Riding on Abbas' Visit to Washington

Among Palestinians, hopes were high ahead of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' (search) meeting with President Bush at the White House on Thursday that the visit would be more than symbolic.

But most agreed that with so much at stake and so little achieved in the "road map" for peace, one meeting is unlikely to have a significant impact.

"I certainly hope some good things will come out of it. I think people are working very hard to make sure that good things [are] coming out of it," said Ziad J. Asali, founder and president of the American Task Force on Palestine. Asali met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday to discuss some of the issues that were expected to arise during Bush's visit with Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen (search).

The discussion ranged from helping the Palestinians achieve their goals of an independent, economically sustainable state, including a $350 million aid package promised by Bush, to controlling terrorist activity in the Palestinian territories and asking the White House to help discourage the building of additional Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"We feel [Rice] was expressing the president's commitment to a real two-state solution," said Asali. "And she said there will be a positive reception for Abbas."

Rice echoed those remarks to the American Israel Political Action Committee this week.

"President Abbas has committed to both freedom and security, and President Bush has offered his hand in friendship, just as he promised he would," Rice said. "The president will be clear that there are commitments to be met, there are goals to be met, but that democracy is a goal that is unassailable and incontrovertible."

The Bush administration is trying to reinvigorate the "road map" to peace, a broadly drawn blueprint for reconciling decades-old territorial and political conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians by the creation of an independent state of Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt respectively in 1967.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), in Washington this week for the AIPAC conference, announced that he would soon be releasing 400 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, in addition to 500 already released. Palestinian supporters quickly rejected the concession as empty rhetoric to preempt Abbas' complaints about Sharon to the White House on Thursday.

Nevertheless, this will be the first time that Abbas, who was elected in January, will meet with Bush in his capacity as leader of his people. Bush had refused to meet with Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat (search), though Bush and Abbas met in 2003 when Abbas was Arafat's prime minister.

"I think it's a potentially important meeting because at the moment, the process seems to be very paralyzed, and going nowhere," said Henry Siegman, director of the U.S.-Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations. Siegman noted that Abbas faces tough challenges in the July legislative elections and a constituency that is still weighing his legitimacy and effectiveness as a leader of the Arab people.

"[Bush] can change this looming stalemate by emphasizing that the U.S. position is that both sides have to observe the requirements of the road map, which is to say not only Palestinians must end the terrorist activities, but the Israelis must end the settlements, which they committed to doing almost a year ago," he said.

Siegman added that Bush needs to make it clear that all sides must negotiate at the same table, pointing to Sharon's recent unilateral decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip, a move welcomed by Palestinians. At the same time, Israel continues to build the security wall, which is opposed by the Palestinians, and allows for increased Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

"If [Bush] does not do that, [Abbas] will return to Palestine a very wounded politician whose chances in the forthcoming election, facing a Hamas challenge, will be reduced considerably," said Siegman.

Hamas (search) is labeled a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. State Department and is responsible for much of the terrorist activity aimed at Israelis over the years along with Hezbollah and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, two other terrorist groups. Nonetheless, Hamas has shown its political strength by dominating recent municipal elections in the Palestinian territories.

In attempting to uphold promises to stem the violence, Abbas was able to secure a "quiet period" or truce with Hamas, which has mostly held over the last three months.

But this is not enough for many supporters of Israel, who say that the road map will go nowhere until Abbas is able to dismantle all terrorist activities in the territories and reform the fragile government there before proceeding to real negotiations. This has been the official stance of Sharon's administration.

"[Abbas] has said things diplomatically, but at the same time, basically shared the stage with wanted terrorists and declared in Arabic that he would never give up these heroes," said Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who urges Bush to be "cautious" with his confidence in Abbas.

"If you can get welcomed to the White House, and a promise of economic support and the legitimacy of being treated as a world leader, why bother to make the sacrifice for peace?" said Rubin. "We should proceed carefully."

Rubin said he disagrees with Sharon's efforts to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, which is expected to occur in August, because he feels it will look like "terrorism pays."

"That's not to say you have to pursue occupation indefinitely," said Rubin. "But then terrorists can claim they won and they achieved their political objectives. I believe in a two-state solution but I don't believe both sides share the same sincerity. Palestinians haven't gotten rid of the violence."

Rubin also accused Abbas of doing little to clean up the corruption in the Palestinian government in order to create a functioning state there.

Jewish settlers in Gaza who oppose the disengagement plan are vowing not to leave their homes and have staged a series of protests against Sharon.

Meanwhile, critics of Sharon's commitment to the peace process say Sharon has put up unreasonable hoops through which Abbas and the Palestinians much jump before getting back to the negotiations.

James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, said Abbas has managed to quell the violence for the first time in more two years of bloody terrorist attacks against Israelis. He argued that unemployment and social despair continues as access for Palestinians between the territories and outside is restricted, promised aid has not fully materialized, the security wall has diminished Palestinian lands and disengagement is still on the horizon.

"[Palestinians] are being invited in one sense by the Americans, to the dance, again, but the Israelis aren't dancing with them," said Zogby. "The Palestinians are saying we've done our part, but you haven't given us anything. They are playing a ritual dance where the two parties aren't dancing together."

He said for Abbas' visit to be a success, he must return to his people with more than just the administration's rhetoric for peace. He needs a concrete commitment from Bush that he will act in good faith to try and push Sharon back to the table, ending unilateralism.

"The Palestinians need more specificity," said Zogby. "They are fighting on the ground for support to maintain their own constituencies. At the end of the day, the question is will the president establish the credibility and viability of the Palestinian effort today?"