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Bush Hosts Palestinian Leader Ahead of Peace Talks

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush is preparing for another trip to Israel next month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state. Today he's hosting the president of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas. He has very little to show his people in terms of the peace process with Israel.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says President Abbas isn't here in Washington to complain, but he will be raising some serious concerns at the White House today about where Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are heading and what's happening on the ground.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Palestinian Negotiator): Unfortunately things on the ground are complicating our drive to achieve an agreement. Our credibility in front of our people is judged by what they see on the ground and not what they hear from us. And to this point what they see on the ground - continue to see the settlements, the incursions, the enclosures - which is really reflecting very damaging on President Abbas and myself and other Palestinian moderates.

KELEMEN: So, the Palestinians are looking to President Bush to help persuade the Israelis to ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. The Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson, who heads a U.S./Palestinian partnership to help build up the economy in the West Bank, is sounding fairly confident.

Mr. WALTER ISAACSON (Aspen Institute): The Bush administration has been absolutely clear that they're in favor of more movement and access on the West Bank so you can have a thriving economy and so that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad can be supported. That's what's going to be discussed this week, I hope. And the Israelis are starting to take action in that direction, and this is a good sign.

KELEMEN: But Erekat says he isn't seeing much change from his vantage point in Jericho. And Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller doesn't see President Bush using the leverage he's built up with the Israeli leader to curtail Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Wilson Center Scholar): I do not believe Ehud Olmert is strong enough to unilaterally restrain settlement activity in meaningful ways. I do not believe the Bush administration is tough enough or invested enough to force him to do so.

KELEMEN: In fact, Miller, author of the book "The Much Too Promised Land," doesn't see the U.S. playing much of a role at all in the Olmert-Abbas talks or in Egypt's efforts to get the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel to agree to an informal truce. All Miller sees is a hefty travel schedule by top Bush administration officials going to the Middle East.

Mr. MILLER: Out of this high level, what I would call station identification process, almost nothing of consequence has emerged. What is emerging is brought to you courtesy of Abbas and Olmert and their discussions and a very informal complicated process on the ground, which involves a three-way negotiation, essentially a negotiation, between Hamas and the Israelis, brokered by the Egyptians.

KELEMEN: Miller says the best the Bush administration can do is take the diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and do no harm. Saeb Erekat is looking to the U.S. to play a larger role in helping Israelis and Palestinians reach their goal of an agreement before Mr. Bush leaves office. He believes that will also help resolve the Palestinian power struggle between Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Mr. EREKAT: If we reach an agreement with the Israelis, we can offer this agreement to the national public referendum, and that's how we're going to get out of this. We're gonna put this agreement, if it's reached, to the common Palestinians to say yes or no. And if they say yes, then we won; if they say no, we lost.

KELEMEN: But the Israelis and Palestinians, by most accounts, are still far apart on even a framework agreement on the core issues dividing them, and President Bush has shown no signs he's ready to step in to help bridge the gaps.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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