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Abbas expected to ask Bush for aid to bolster Palestinian Authority

WASHINGTON—Mahmoud Abbas makes his first White House visit as Palestinian Authority president on Thursday, hoping to secure more aid and assurances from President Bush that he'll hold Israel to its obligations under the road map peace plan.

The Oval Office session will be heavy on symbolism: It's the first meeting between a Palestinian president and Bush. But Abbas needs more than symbolism. He must return home with results showing he has Washington's ear and that his people can expect economic improvements and progress toward an independent state.

The road map, a series of confidence-building measures intended to lead to a Palestinian state, has been stalled for months. Abbas wants Washington to hold Israel's feet to the fire so that it fulfills its obligations under the plan once it begins withdrawing from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Palestinian officials fear that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan is a stunt to sidetrack the road map and avoid a more comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, where Israeli settlements have been expanding.

"There is a concern," said Nabil Abuznaid, a spokesman in the Palestinian Authority's Washington office. "We want to be clear on everything. We want to make sure it (the road map) is going to happen."

If Abbas leaves Washington with nothing, it could undermine him at home and strengthen the Islamic militant group Hamas, which is competing against Abbas' ruling Fatah party in parliamentary elections scheduled for July.

"He will tell President Bush bluntly that he needs an emergency package ... to create jobs," said Ghassan Shabaneh, an assistant international relations professor at New York City's Marymount Manhattan College who has met with Abbas. "If he can create jobs it will strengthen him and disarm his opponents."

Shabaneh and other Middle East experts say unemployment in the Palestinian areas hovers around 40 percent, with the government being the primary employer. Hamas offers Palestinians free services such as health care and schools, something that the cash-strapped Palestinian government struggles to do.

"If he has money, he can go back and counter that and start changing the status on the ground," Shabaneh said. "If Abbas comes empty-handed from Washington, the administration can be assured that Hamas will be strengthened."

Abbas is the elected successor to the late Yasser Arafat. Bush had refused to meet with Arafat, finding him an unsuitable partner in efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because he didn't take strong enough action to stop terror attacks against Israeli civilians.

Bush is expected to praise Abbas for the progress he's made in the four months he's held office, including his agreeing to a cease-fire with Sharon in February. Bush also is expected to prod Abbas to do more to rein in Palestinian violence aimed at Israel.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week at a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby, that "the president will be clear that there are commitments to be met" by Abbas.

"The Palestinian Authority must advance democratic reform and it must dismantle all terrorist networks in its society," Rice said Monday.

Sharon told AIPAC conventioneers on Tuesday that the Palestinian "smuggling of weapons and arms production continues, and there is no real prevention of terrorist actions" under Abbas.

"The progress toward the road map can be achieved only after the terrorist organizations are dismantled," he said.

Abbas recently reached an agreement with Hamas to end mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli settlements, which had shattered the three-month-old cease-fire.

Abbas has deplored Israeli-Palestinian violence and has said he believes the best way to reduce it is to bring groups like Hamas into the democratic fold.

"The priority for the administration should be making the Palestinian Authority neutralize and dismantle terrorist organizations. The PA (Palestinian Authority) is not going against Hamas," said Ariel Cohen, an analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research organization in Washington.

Edward Walker, head of the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, said trying to incorporate Hamas into the political process is one of the few things Abbas can do to deal with militant groups.

"He's doing what he can to upset the apple cart, unless he really wants to take on Hamas, which he's not strong enough to do yet," said Walker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt under President Clinton. "He doesn't have the firepower or the popularity. People are going to have to see what benefits are coming their way. Washington is part of that, the European Union is part of that, and the Israelis are a major part of that."

Bush asked Congress for $350 million to help support Palestinian political and economic reforms. The House of Representatives last week approved $200 million of the aid, but refused to give it directly to the Palestinian Authority as Bush had requested.

The House voted that $150 million would be funneled through U.S. aid agencies and non-governmental and philanthropic organizations. The House also directed that $50 million go to Israel to construct terminals for people at checkpoints around Palestinian areas. The Senate also approved the measures.

"We need all the financial political support we can get," the Palestinian Authority's Abuznaid said. "We don't need strings on it because strings tie things up."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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