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Palestinians Put Pressure On Abbas

Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas could be ousted by the Palestinian parliament unless he returns from Washington with substantial concessions from Israel, the Palestinian information minister said Wednesday.

The comments by Nabil Amr underscored the great expectations among Palestinians for Friday's planned meeting between President Bush and the politically beleaguered Abbas.

Israel meanwhile has hardened its conditions for releasing Palestinian prisoners, announcing that at this point, it will not free members of two Islamic terror groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. Israel fears that these people will return to terrorist activity if they're released.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Abbas he would consider releasing some members of those groups, perhaps several hundred who weren't involved in bloodshed.

Although violence is markedly down since Palestinian militant groups declared a temporary halt to attacks on Israelis on June 29, frustrations are building on the Palestinian side about the halting progress along the U.S.-backed "road map," a blueprint meant to lead to Palestinian statehood by 2005.

Israel has pulled out of parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but troops remain in other Palestinian towns; Israel has dismantled few West Bank settler outposts and has not frozen construction in established settlements, as required by the plan. Israel also refuses to release more than a few hundred of the estimated 7,700 Palestinian prisoners held for alleged involvement in terrorism.

Israel says further progress is conditional on the Palestinian Authority dismantling and disarming militant groups, another step called for in the road map. Abbas categorically refuses to do this for fear of sparking a civil war, and is asking for time to apply persuasion and win over the militants by showing results.

The prisoner issue is not part of the peace road map, but Palestinian officials say Israel's decision will make it impossible to move forward.

Mr. Bush is scheduled to meet with Sharon on July 29, four days after his meeting with Abbas, and both sides are hoping he will break the deadlock by pressing the other to meet its obligations first.

Amr said Abbas — who flies to the United States Wednesday after two days of meetings with officials in Egypt and Jordan — would ask Mr. Bush to press Israel for progress on the release of Palestinian prisoners, the lifting of movement restrictions on Palestinians and an Israeli settlement freeze.

Amr said the prime minister "needs to get support from the American administration in order to go ahead with implementation of the road map," or he would face "difficulties on the Palestinian street" and in the legislature.

He said parliament would convene after Abbas' return "to discuss his progress ... (and) debate again giving him its confidence or not."

Abbas also faces pressure from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is being boycotted by the United States and Israel which accuse him of fomenting terrorism. Arafat reluctantly appointed Abbas in April under international pressure, and Arafat has tried to curtail the premier's authority ever since.

Abbas resigned from the central committee of Arafat's Fatah Party two weeks ago after Arafat loyalists accused him of being too soft in his contacts with Sharon in recent months.

Abbas held another inconclusive meeting with Sharon on Sunday, leading to grumbling among Palestinians about Israel's unbending stance and Abbas' inability to achieve results.

Palestinian officials say the prisoner issue is emerging as the key to rebuilding trust shattered by 33 months of violence that killed 2,414 people on the Palestinian side and 806 on the Israeli side.

Israel says the militant groups are using the truce to regroup and rearm and that a mass prisoner release would only replenish their ranks and spur another round of violence. The militants say they will scrap their truce unless Israel releases the prisoners.

A committee of Israeli government ministers met Wednesday to discuss the release of several hundred prisoners, but deferred a decision on whether those freed might include members of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad until another discussion of the issue in the full Cabinet.

A government statement said Sharon had told the committee that prisoner releases would be made in small batches, and "weighed against decisive Palestinian action in the security field."

Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi repeated his insistence that the prisoner issue "is a red line for all the Palestinians." Israel, he said, "has to abide by the Palestinian initiative and shoulder its responsibilities, especially the prisoners' release."

In other developments, the army said Wednesday that police had arrested two Palestinians overnight in the northern West Bank village of Rai. The army said the men were Islamic Jihad members planning a suicide bombing in Israel.

Also, police were looking for a missing soldier who was last seen getting off a bus in northern Israel on Monday. Police said they had not determined whether the soldier, Oleg Shaichat, had been abducted. Militant groups have threatened to kidnap soldiers to trade them for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

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