Abbas managed to persuade US President George W Bush to make a rare public criticism of Israel last Friday when Bush said the apartheid wall Israel is erecting in the occupied West Bank was undermining confidence in the “road map”.

But after his own audience with Bush on Tuesday, Sharon vowed Israel would push ahead with the wall.

Allies of Abbas, who expected him to return home later on Wednesday, had warned that the outcome of his trip was crucial for his political survival. Some Palestinian resistance leaders had warned if the Premier returned from Washington without solid guarantees from the Bush administration, he would face a no-confidence vote.

Abbas won praise from Bush for his “vision” and “courage” but observers say that there is little evidence of a u-turn from Washington in its instinctive alliance with Israel.

Bush also failed to wring commitments from the Israeli premier on a halt to illegal settlement activity or troops withdrawals from occupied Palestinian towns.

Optimism ebbs

Bush has sidelined Palestinian
President Yassir Arafat for Abbas

A columnist with the Palestinian al-Ayyam daily, Hani al-Masri, said the challenges facing Abbas had now increased.

“After the Bush-Abu Mazen (Abbas’ alias) meeting, there was a sense that things were moving ahead since there was a concrete position from the Americans on the wall and on the settlements,” he said.

“But it all evaporated after the Bush-Sharon meeting and it will be difficult to expect future US pressure on Sharon because the Americans will be busy with the elections.”

Abbas’ Labour Minister Ghassan Khatib said there was a sense of despondency among Palestinians after the initial burst of optimism but said he was encouraged by Bush’s continued interest in the US-backed “road map” aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“It’s true there is disappointment that Bush did not manage to convince Sharon to retreat on the issue of the wall and settlement activities but it is clear that the Americans are engaged more and more in the process and this is very important,” he said.