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Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) heads off today on the most important mission in his short period in office, a journey that could determine the fate of the cease-fire and the road map. He is being accompanied by the key people in the Palestinian leadership: Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council; External Affairs Minister Nabil Sha'ath; Minister for Security Mohammed Dahlan; and Finance Minister Salam Fayyad. They will go to Egypt and Jordan, see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah, and then at the weekend will be in Washington for talks with President George W. Bush.

Yasser Arafat gave his blessing for the trip. That was necessary because after he became prime minister Abbas was asked when he would go on state missions overseas, and he said it was unreasonable to expect him to travel the world while Arafat is imprisoned in his office. Arafat's blessings were accompanied by a veiled warning: "This is a decisive test of the American position," said Arafat's aide, Ahmed Abdul Rahman, and the intention was clear - we'll see what Abu Mazen can get out of the Americans.

One PLC member, Hatem Abdul Kadr of Jerusalem, said it even more bluntly. "If Abu Mazen doesn't bring about an Israeli withdrawal (meaning a lifting of the checkpoints), and freedom for the prisoners, then he won't last and will have to resign."

There has been an enormous amount of activity in the territories in recent days regarding the prisoners, with demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, from Rafah and Khan Yunis to Nablus and Jenin. Families marched with the photographs of their sons and fathers in prison, mothers put up protest tents, and the press is unanimous - the prisoner problem is a ticking bomb that could blow up the road map if it is not neutralized. One Palestinian spokesman recalled that three years ago, during Nakba Day memorial ceremonies on May 15, 2000, there were similar demonstrations calling for prisoner releases from Israeli jails. They didn't get out and that became one of the elements that prompted the intifada.

Abu Mazen knows the prisoner issue will determine his political future. The release of a large number of prisoners might be the only chance his government has to win public support, and that's why many Fatah activists and others have joined the broad campaign for a prisoner release. People in the Palestinian leadership say they expect that in the near future, Israel will free about half the number of prisoners it is holding. That's more than 3,000 prisoners, not counting the East Jerusalemites, whom Israel does not include in its count, and whose relatives are organizing their own lobbying group. Why 3,000? The Palestinians put a list of some 450 veteran prisoners who have been behind bars since before the Oslo accords at the top, and then another 2,500 who are in prison though they were not directly involved in terrorist activity, who don't have "blood on their hands."

The Palestinians also demand an agreement now that the permanent agreement is signed, and with the establishment of the Palestinian state (according to the road map, in 2005), the rest of the prisoners will be released. Israel is far from ready to comply with any of this. Officially, as of yesterday morning at least, before Abbas went into his meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel was only ready to release about 400 prisoners.

Abu Mazen and his senior entourage will ask the administration's decision makers and Bush to exert all possible pressure on Sharon to change his approach to the issue and significantly increase the number of prisoners to be released. The issue of the checkpoints will also be a centerpiece of the Palestinian- American dialogue, and of course, so will the settlement freeze and the separation fence's encroachment on Palestinian land - but for the Palestinian public, Abu Mazen's fate will be determined if he succeeds or fails on the prisoner issue.