For the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, a Bad Day on Capitol Hill

Reporter's Notebook

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 19, 2007, issue of February 16, 2007.
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Washington - If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wanted to get a feel for just how upset Congress is over his decision to form a coalition government with Hamas, he should have caught Rep. Gary Ackerman’s opening comments Wednesday at the meeting of the Middle East subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ackerman, the New York Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, had been a leading proponent on Capitol Hill of the position that the United States should be doing more to back Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.

Not anymore.

“What has Abu Mazen done to strengthen himself? He’s capitulated to Hamas,” Ackerman said. “The Mecca accord neither strengthens him nor helps the cause of peace…. We now have what Secretary Rice once said we could not accept: a Palestinian Authority with one foot in terror and one foot in democracy.”

Ackerman concluded that Abbas “has gutted his own credibility.”

Ackerman’s attack on the Mecca accords set the tone for the rest of the meeting. The ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, asked how Congress could be expected to support funding for the P.A. when Abbas sides with Hamas. Other lawmakers followed a similar line, urging the administration to continue insisting that the new Palestinian government recognize Israel and to avoid linking the situation in Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In just one session, the Democratic-led subcommittee made it clear that at least on issues regarding the Palestinian conflict, it stands to the right of the Bush administration.

The three experts invited to testify — Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel; David Makovsky, director of the Middle East Peace program of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Daniel Pipes, of the hawkish Middle East Forum — were critical of the new Palestinian national unity government. Indyk tried to find a silver lining that would enable the renewal of the peace process, Makovsky called on the administration to re-examine its relations with the Saudis in light of the Mecca agreement and Pipes said that there had never been any peace process with the Palestinians to begin with.

M.J. Rosenberg of the dovish Israel Policy Forum criticized the inclusion of Pipes in an e-mail he sent to his group’s supporters. He called Pipes a “crank” whose constant refrain is that “the Palestinians are bad people with whom negotiations are impossible” and slammed the failure to invite any Arab Americans to testify. Indyk, Makovsky and Pipes are all Jewish and have worked for pro-Israel groups.

The rough day for the Palestinians on Capitol Hill did not end in the committee room. As the Middle East subcommittee was wrapping up its discussion, in the adjacent office building the inaugural event of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus was beginning. The new caucus, co-chaired by Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Republican Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida, is a sister organization to a similar caucus in the Israeli Knesset that promotes ties between Israeli lawmakers and Christian supporters of Israel around the world. Israeli lawmaker Benny Elon, who heads the Knesset caucus, was the guest of honor at the event and spoke of the Bible as the bridge between Jews and Christians. Elon, who belongs to the right-wing Ichud Leumi party, is a proponent of encouraging Arabs to leave Israel and the territories.

At the event, Engel called on the administration and Congress to “be resolute in supporting no negotiations and no financial assistance to the Palestinians until they accept the three conditions.” Engel, who represents a district that is about 15% to 20% Jewish, with many Orthodox families, praised the Bush administration as being “a big supporter of Israel.”

With only 16 members, at least as of Wednesday, the new caucus is focusing on two issues: the Palestinians and Iran. Pro-Israel bills and resolutions relating to these issues easily gain the support of at least 300 House members in any vote, so it is difficult to gauge the new caucus’s importance. Indeed, only two reporters attended its inaugural press conference, with the empty seats in the room filled by pro-Israel activists. Weldon, however, said that caucus membership could “double, triple and quadruple,” adding that no one approached by him or by Engel had refused to join.

But for advocates of the Palestinian cause and those who think the White House should be backing Abbas in his struggles with Hamas, it was not Ackerman or Engel, but rather a third New York Democrat who dealt them the most severe blow.

Rep. Nita Lowey, who chairs the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, decided to put a hold on an $86 million aid request aimed at strengthening armed forces under Abbas’s control. The decision to put the money on hold was made even before the Mecca agreement was signed. Now, in the wake of the Palestinian deal, the hold is gaining support from other members of Congress, including Ackerman and other members of his subcommittee, who want to receive more information from the administration before giving approval to the transfer the funds.

The proposed funding is intended to bolster Palestinian forces loyal to Abbas in order to help him maintain calm in Gaza and confront challenges from Hamas forces.

A senior Bush administration official told the Forward Wednesday that even though the atmosphere on the Hill does not currently seem conducive to securing the aid, the White House is not pulling its request for the funds. “Is there still a need to have the good guys empowered? Of course there is,” said the official. “Nothing has changed on the ground.”

At the same time, he acknowledged, it might be more difficult at this juncture to convince Congress that the aid is needed.

“This is just another reason for the Palestinians to clarify exactly where their new government stands,” the official said.

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