State Department Weighs Plan for Palestinian State

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
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The Bush administration is considering a plan to declare an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders by the end of 2007.

The idea has been “kicked around” in the State Department for several weeks, according to sources. It could be one element of a new American Middle East peace plan, the sources added, if President Bush decides to push forward with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as part of a fresh Middle East policy he is constructing.

At the same time, in an effort to bolster the regime of Mahmoud Abbas, the administration also has begun lobbying Congress to provide $100 million to fund forces loyal to the Palestinian president.

Talk of new ideas for breaking the deadlock in the Middle East come as pressure mounts on the United States and Israel to take action toward resolving the conflict. Jordan’s King Abdullah, who met Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert in Amman, offered his services in brokering a deal and announced he would hold talks with all parties in an attempt to reach an agreement. The Jordanian monarch, who also has urged the United States to be more active on the issue, warned that without progress between Israelis and Palestinians, violence would increase.

The prospects for a meeting between Olmert and Abbas seemed greater this week after chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared Tuesday that preparations for a summit “are ongoing.”

The idea of an independent Palestinian state with temporary borders is based on the American-backed peace plan known as the road map. The second phase of the plan, which was formally accepted by both Israelis and Palestinians, calls for a declaration of an independent state even before final borders are agreed upon between both sides.

Though the United States has maintained that the road map is still the only viable peace plan for the region, it never took off. This was mainly because of the Israeli insistence that the Palestinians curb terrorism as demanded in the first phase of the plan.

The State Department announced this week that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be visiting the region “early next year” and, according to spokesman Sean McCormack, will “devote a lot of time and energy” to implementing a two-state solution. Rice is not expected to present new initiatives during her visit.

A diplomatic source, briefed by administration officials on the idea of a state with provisional borders, said this week that the most significant advantage the plan has is that it would allow President Bush to achieve his goal of a two-state solution within a reasonable timeframe. If implemented, such a plan also could help generate support for the United States among moderate Arab countries and possibly assist the American efforts to gain stability in Iraq.

In a meeting with Jewish educators and students this week, President Bush mentioned the need for improving ties with moderate Arab countries, saying, according to one participant, that “as time evolves, strange relationships evolve.”

A Washington source close to the issue said the administration believes that the idea of an independent state with temporary borders could be accepted by the Israelis, especially in light of Olmert’s latest remarks on his willingness to give up land and push for a two-state solution.

The idea, however, may turn out to be a hard sell for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli leaders have insisted throughout the years that a fundamental condition for moving forward with any diplomatic initiative is the renunciation of terror by Palestinians and dismantling of the terror infrastructure in the territories. A diplomatic official argued that, because of the chaos in the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli demands are no longer relevant, since it is clear that there is no Palestinian leader who can deliver on the issue of fighting terror. A source close to the P.A. said that such a plan could be acceptable only if America provides assurances that the temporary state does not become a final one and that the border issue remains on the table.

As long-term peace plans are being discussed and await a green light from the president and from the secretary of state, senior administration officials are working to provide temporary relief to Palestinian moderates.

The administration now intends to funnel $100 million to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian security forces, mainly to Abbas’s presidential guard. In recent weeks, Keith Dayton, the American military envoy to the region, and other State Department officials have briefed key congressional staffers on the government’s plan to provide funding for the Palestinian security forces.

The request, according to congressional sources, is for providing up to $100 million that was previously appropriated for the P.A. but was never delivered because of the Hamas victory in the January elections. The money is to be used for paying salaries of members of the security services and presidential guard, and for equipment, but it will not be used for the purchase of lethal weapons. Weapons for the security forces are to be provided by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to sources familiar with the plan.

The administration’s plan for strengthening Abbas’s forces is gaining support in Congress and is not expected to encounter significant resistance.

“It might just be too little and too late,” said Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, who in January 2007 will take over as head of the Middle East subcommittee.

Though Ackerman told the Forward he believes that the United States still can help Abbas “without making him look like a puppet,” he criticized the administration for dragging its feet in providing support for the Palestinian leader. “I hope it’s not too late,” Ackerman said, promising that once he and the Democrats take over the subcommittee, they will scrutinize the administration’s Middle East policy.

“The oversight will be there, you can count on that,” Ackerman said.

Both Democratic and Republican staffers voiced skepticism over the possibility that America’s money actually will make a difference in the rapidly deteriorating P.A. “It’s between investing in the crooks or in the killers, so we invest in the crooks,” one staffer said.

In the last days of its final session, the outgoing Congress passed the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which imposes restrictions on American aid to the P.A. The law, however, also includes a provision allowing the transfer of funds to forces loyal to Abbas.

Pro-Israeli lobbyists and Israeli officials said that they favor American efforts to bolster Fatah-controlled security forces, stressing the need to strengthen Abbas in light of the challenges he is facing.

Concerns in the United States of being seen as meddling in internal Palestinian politics led McCormack, the State Department spokesman, on Tuesday to say that this “is certainly not our intent.” The spokesman added that the American assistance is designed to “shore up the institutions of a future Palestinian state,” not to shore up support for Abbas.

Before the Palestinian parliamentary elections last January, the United States was criticized for providing $2 million worth of assistance to Abbas’s Fatah party through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Some think it is too late for clarifications.

“It’s a shame they made this whole issue public,” said the American Task Force on Palestine’s president, Ziad Asali, who just returned from a trip to the region. “This money is seen as being used against Hamas and creates a problem for Abbas.”

Rice made an effort this week not to enter the Palestinian political debate, saying that the decision to call for early elections in the P.A. “is something that I think the Palestinians will decide.” Rice stressed, however, that violence in the Palestinian territories must stop and that “the political crisis also has to be resolved.”

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