Bush to meet with Sharon Tuesday
From Jerrold Kessel
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets Tuesday with President Bush, the Israeli leader will be able to point to steps his country has taken in an effort to build confidence in the fledgling "road map" to peace.
Hours before Sharon left for the United States, his Cabinet Sunday approved the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members along with other Palestinians held in Israeli prisons who met certain criteria for release, Israeli sources said.
The exact numbers were not clear. An Israeli government official said 380 to 480 Palestinian prisoners will be released while Israeli radio reported a total of 540 Palestinians would be released. (Full story)
In addition, the Israelis lifted two checkpoints north of Ramallah and several roadblocks near Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron, all in the West Bank.
The civil administration also raised the number of entrance permits given to Palestinian workers and merchants from Bethlehem and Tulkarem.
The road map is backed by the so-called Mideast Quartet -- the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. It is aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state by 2005.
This will be Sharon's eighth trip to the White House.
Last week, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was warmly received in Washington.
In contrast, for two and a half years, Bush refused to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat because he did not view the longtime leader as trustworthy and as committed to ending Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
Terror attacks against Israelis have decreased since Abbas worked out a truce among Palestinian militant groups.
Just weeks ago, the United States was pressuring both Israelis and Palestinians to begin the journey toward peace.
Now both parties are lobbying Washington to nudge the other side to make the first serious move.
During his visit, Abbas sought U.S. help in pressuring Israel on issues the Palestinians consider vital: the release of prisoners and a curb on Jewish settlements. (Full story)
But after three years without an invitation, even gaining access to the White House is a significant advance for the Palestinians.
"Palestinians will tell you it's very important to reconstitute the Palestinian-American relationship," said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi of the Palestinian Academic Society. "It's on the top of the agenda that Palestinians are back as equal partners in the peace process. There is a name, a face, an address to deal with."
But will the triangular relationship emerging now between the new Palestinian leader, Bush and Sharon affect the deep understanding between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister -- especially on the central issue of battling terror?
"There is a lot of understanding between the two leaders and I believe Sharon thinks that eventually the Palestinians will be forced to live up to their promises. And if they will not, we'll see again Sharon the tough guy who is ready to fight," said Ephraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University.
The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers have met three times in recent weeks. So far they have produced no major breakthroughs.