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Israel Easing Conditions for Palestinians Ahead of Sharon-Bush Meeting - 2002-10-15

Israel is taking steps to ease conditions for Palestinians. The move comes ahead of talks Wednesday between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush at the White House. Israel is releasing tax revenues due the Palestinians and making preparations for withdrawing troops from some Palestinian self-rule areas.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer announced Tuesday that plans are underway to withdraw troops from the Palestinian-ruled part of the West Bank city of Hebron by the weekend.

Hebron is one of several West Bank cities where Israel imposed military rule in June following a campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Israel also reached an understanding Monday to release some two billion shekels or about $400 million, in tax revenues it has withheld from the Palestinians.

In addition, Israel this week lifted curfews on a number of Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

The steps are being taken amid reports in the Israeli media that Mr. Bush intends to tell Mr. Sharon at Wednesday's meeting that he should be doing more to improve the living conditions of Palestinians and set the stage for a resumption of peace talks.

The meeting is also expected to focus heavily on preparations for a possible American military strike against Iraq.

There are fears that Baghdad might attack Israel, as it did in the 1991 Gulf War, only this time with chemical and biological weapons.

Israeli officials say that Mr. Sharon will promise Mr. Bush that, should Israel decide to retaliate for an Iraqi attack against the Jewish state, Israel's response will be fully coordinated with Washington.

Mr. Sharon emphasized Israel's strong support for the United States in a speech to parliament before his departure.

He said that threats of mass destruction are not only directed at Israel but also the United States.

"The United States, the leader of the free world, is determined to uproot this threat and to neutralize it," he said. "Israel is part of the free world, an ally of the United States, and we welcome its leadership in the struggle against the forces of evil."

Analysts say Mr. Sharon will tell Mr. Bush that Israel wants to preserve its strong relationship with the United States, as the Jewish State faces the prospect of another war in the Middle East.