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Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas almost slipped on the stairs as he alighted from the plane that brought him to Washington on Thursday - maybe because it wasn't a Palestinian plane. The time when Palestinian planes lifted off from Dahaniya airport in Gaza is a distant memory.

That national symbol, the airport, was assiduously plowed under by Israeli bulldozers more than two years ago. In its place, Abbas introduced a a symbolic achievement of a different order - a first meeting of a Palestinian leader with President George Bush. However, to paraphrase an aphorism on a different subject, "You can't buy anything in the grocery store with a President Bush visit."

The president treats even his own road map as if it were chewing gum that got stuck on the sole of his shoe. Up to now Bush has not succeeded in giving Abbas any commodity he can sell to the Palestinian public - not evacuation of outposts, not a freeze on settlements, not an Israeli army withdrawal to the positions of September 2000, not the release of prisoners, and not free passage between cities in the West Bank.

The only candy thrown to Abbas has been the invitation to visit Washington. When he was about to board the plane he realized that the release of prisoners would be delayed some more. With Israel he still has to conclude a minor issue - the dismantling the terrorist organizations that awarded him the hudna (cease-fire) that made the visit to Washington possible in the first place.

The subject of the prisoners is an excellent example of what can be expected in the course of the peace process. According to the Israeli position, the release of prisoners is a good-will gesture, as Israel does not have such an obligation under the terms of the road map. In fact, this is merchandise that comes with a very specific price tag attached - dismantling the terrorist organizations.

But the logic behind the Israeli demand has to be looked at more closely. Israel is ready to release prisoners, provided they no longer have an organization to which they can return. Taking this to a logical absurdity, Israel should not make do with the dismantling Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It has to demand the breakup of Fatah and perhaps the entire Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The Palestinian Authority, too, whose president is Yasser Arafat, whom Israel says is a terrorist, will also have to be dismantled. The connection between the liberation of prisoners and breaking up of organizations is misleading. After all, released prisoners, or for that matter even disgruntled people in general, don't need an organization to perpetrate acts of terrorism. Terrorist operations are a means of combating the occupation, or Israel, or just Jews. These are not carried out because organizations happen to exist.

The ideology that underlies terrorism has to be dismantled, in order to remove its organizational products. The problem is that to accomplish this it is essential to present a political alternative and to implement it, so that even fanatic groups will be hard put to find public justification for their actions.

But at this point it's best to take a break from the tiresome question of the prisoners. Because if Hezbollah were to offer the missing Air Force navigator Ron Arad in return for the prisoners, if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were to declare that he is ready to release Azzam Azam, the Israeli Arab incarcerated in Egypt on spying charges, or if people in the Bush administration were heard making similar comments about Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of spying for Israel, no one would even think of putting forward additional terms.

Moreover, if Bush "requests" Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to release 1,232 or 2,965 prisoners, we will immediately see that exact number of prisoners that Israel can release. The appropriate explanation for their release will also be found. The truth is that Israel is not really conducting negotiations with the Palestinians but with Washington.

Goodwill gestures to Abbas, strengthening his status as prime minister, helping him confront Arafat and rejectionist organizations, don't really interest Israel. The hudna apparently can go to hell. Otherwise, how to explain Israel's indifference as time runs out?

Sharon was dragged unwillingly into the road map process, and that is how Israel behaving. The question that must concern it now is where the boundaries of Washington's patience lie, not how big Abbas' muscles are.