Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, travels to Washington this week for talks with President Bush on Thursday. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the latest developments in the search for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

This will be Mahmoud Abbas' second meeting with President Bush at the White House since he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority last January. Mr. Bush never extended such an invitation to Mr. Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who died last November. The Bush administration made clear it would not negotiate with the Palestinians as long as Mr. Arafat was in power, and many experts say that effectively brought the peace process to a halt.

Following their first meeting on May 26th at the White House, Mr. Bush signaled a new era of relations by calling Mahmoud Abbas a man of courage. "We will stand with you, Mr. President, as you combat corruption, reform the Palestinian security services and your justice system and revive your economy. Mr. President, you have made a new start on a difficult journey, requiring courage and leadership each day, and we will take that journey together," he said.

Experts say, since his election, Mr. Abbas has made some progress in instituting internal reforms within the Palestinian Authority. And he has begun to deal with extremist groups, such as Hamas, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Mr. Abbas has been successful in getting Hamas to agree to a cease-fire that has mostly held, with minor infractions.

Analysts also point out Mr. Abbas' second trip to the White House comes after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which Israel captured along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the 1967 war.

Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, says Presidents Bush and Abbas will discuss what is to be the next step in the peace process. "Because look, the bottom line is there is some skepticism out there, particularly among the Palestinians, that it's 'Gaza first and Gaza last' - that the Israelis are going to get out of Gaza, and you (Americans) are just going to forget about us," he said. "And the message we are delivering to the Palestinians, and the Israelis is 'hey, this is the start of something and not the end'. And the end is what we have always said we want to see, which is an independent Palestinian state that can live side-by-side with Israel in peace and security. So, that's going to be the subject of discussion - how we build on the momentum from the Gaza withdrawal, build on the success that Abbas has been able to enjoy, to make more progress."

Many experts say the Gaza withdrawal is but one small step in the long journey to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. One of those is Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. "Yes, Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally, but Israel still occupies the West Bank. Israel still occupies East Jerusalem. Israel is still building the so-called 'wall of separation,' the so-called 'security wall,' which creates major pain for Palestinians. Israel controls the airways and the borders and the seas in Gaza. So, even though Israel has pulled out of Gaza, Gaza remains besieged, and, you might say, (remains under) the overall, indirect control of Israel. So, yes, the unilateral pull-out by Israel from Gaza was a positive step, but, unfortunately, it has not changed the realities on the ground for Palestinians," he said.

Some analysts say the role of the United States is critical to move the peace process forward.

Seth Jones, Middle East expert with the Rand Corporation, says the Bush administration has not been actively engaged in the Palestinian-Israel peace process. "Part of the problem is the United States has its hands full in a number of areas of the world. It's involved in a very difficult and destabilizing situation in Iraq. The U.S. is also conducting a counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan. So, in the Middle East itself, the Bush administration has found it difficult to provide a lot of resources and focus to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, because it is involved so much in other issues, like Iraq and Afghanistan. And, I think, that's an important cost. Because it is so involved elsewhere, it hasn't been able to provide the resources and the time and the focus to this issue - and it should," he said.

However, State Department spokesman Ereli says the United States continues to be highly engaged in the Middle East peace process, and Mr. Abbas' visit to Washington is proof of that engagement. "Frankly, U.S. involvement in trying to help bring about an independent Palestinian state has been intensive, sustained and frankly productive - both at a bilateral level and at a multilateral level," he said.

For his part, Professor Gerges from Sarah Lawrence College, says, without continued, active U.S. involvement, the peace process will go nowhere. "Without American intervention, both the Palestinian and the Israeli leadership do not seem to have the political will, and also the muscle and the imagination, to make the necessary moves in order to really begin the difficult and painful and dangerous journey - the dangerous move toward the peace process," he said.

Many analysts say the next few months will be crucial to see whether the Israelis, Palestinians and the United States can work together, build on the momentum gained from the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, and thus move the peace process forward.