Stepping Back, Bush Administration Wants Arab Allies To Pressure Hamas

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
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Washington - In an effort to avoid accusations of American meddling, the Bush administration is looking to moderate Arab countries to press the new Palestinian unity government to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

“We don’t want to be in the middle of this,” a senior administration official told the Forward. “We don’t want to have them unite against us on this.” According to the official, the administration is leaving it to Fatah and Hamas to work out the details of their unity government in a way that can satisfy the demands of the diplomatic quartet made up of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. In addition to conditioning economic assistance on recognition of Israel and a disavowal of terrorism, the quartet is insisting that any Palestinian government with ties to Hamas abide by previous pacts signed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“The onus is on them; it is their [unity government] agreement,” the Bush administration official said. “Does what we know about the agreement live up to the quartet requirements? We don’t think so. It is up to them to prove us wrong.”

The agreement, reached in Mecca two weeks ago, overshadowed Monday’s meeting in Jerusalem between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah.

Rice tried to put a positive spin on the summit, saying to reporters in Jerusalem that Olmert and Abbas “reiterated their desire for American participation and leadership in facilitating efforts to overcome obstacles, rally regional and international support, and move forward toward peace.” The secretary of state promised to return to the region soon for further discussion with both sides.

But Israeli and Palestinian press reported that the meeting, which took place at a Jerusalem hotel overlooking the Old City, was well short of a success. According to the reports, Olmert accused Abbas of betraying his trust by signing the national unity government deal with Hamas. Abbas reportedly countered that Olmert and Rice should wait and see if the new government adheres to the three conditions of the quartet.

When planning for the summit, the Bush administration had hoped that it could serve as an opportunity to discuss the parameters of a final deal and that it could supply Abbas with a more tangible view of the endgame, with which he could strengthen his standing among Palestinian voters. Israeli and American sources said after the meeting that final-status issues did not take center stage. Instead the discussions focused on Israeli demands of the Palestinians and on short-term arrangements regarding the cease-fire and freedom of movement in the Palestinian territories.

“Abbas’s standing in the Palestinian public remains weak,” said Ziad Asali, head of the American Task Force on Palestine. The only positive outcome of the summit, according to Asali, is the fact that the Palestinian president was not disqualified by the Americans for future negotiations. “Abbas came out of the meeting with a clear wish of the U.S. to see him as an acceptable interlocutor and with the Israelis not protesting that.”

While exercising caution in its public response to the Mecca agreement, administration officials have privately expressed their disappointment over the role played by the Saudis in brokering the deal.

“Abbas was put in a tough position by [the Saudis]. They made him an offer he could not refuse,” the senior Bush administration official said, adding that while the Saudi-brokered agreement did have a positive outcome of stopping the violence between Palestinian factions in Gaza, “this was not the deal [the United States] would have liked to see.”

During the six months of discussions that preceded the Fatah-Hamas agreement, the United States remained involved, through Saudi and Egyptian mediators, in the negotiations. The United States also provided input, indicating what would be acceptable as a final outcome. Now, following the disappointment over the agreement finally reached, the Bush administration is leaving it to the Palestinians to come up with an improved draft that will be able to satisfy the international community.

The failure of the Jerusalem summit to achieve progress in talks between Israelis and Palestinians is not seen in Washington as deterring future American attempts to facilitate talks between both sides. Still, diplomatic sources said this week that a second round of talks would take place probably only after the new Palestinian national unity government is finalized, its platform has been cleared and its portfolios have been handed out.

On Capitol Hill, leaders of the Israel Policy Forum — a Jewish advocacy group promoting an active American role in the peace process — met with Democratic and Republican lawmakers. M.J. Rosenberg, the group’s director of policy analysis, said that, in meetings with both Democratic and Republican senators, lawmakers agreed on the need for the United States to play a leading role in the peace process and the Middle East. According to Rosenberg, who attended the meetings, Republican lawmakers told the group that while Rice is interested in serious engagement in the region, she is being restrained by deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who is backed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

“The Republicans we met with think that Rice should be strengthened and encouraged to keep up her involvement,” Rosenberg said. “The Democrats, on the other hand, are looking beyond this administration.”

Other voices in Congress last week sounded more rejectionist regarding the Palestinians.

In a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, chairman Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, lashed out at Abbas for accepting the Mecca agreement. “What has [Abbas] 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’s comments were striking, given his previous support for increased American efforts to boost Abbas (please see story below).

Also in the House, an $86 million aid package to Abbas’s security forces has been held up by Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat. Lowey put a hold on the funds even before the Mecca agreement was signed, saying she wanted further explanations from the administration on the aims of the money. A spokesman for Lowey said that, as of Tuesday, the hold was still in place and that the State Department had yet to respond to her request for details.

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