WASHINGTON — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas left the White House last week with plenty of political gains, which Israeli pundits and some high-profile Israeli officials were saying came at Jerusalem’s expense.
Still, Jewish groups remained silent.
As he welcomed Abbas last week, Bush seemed supportive of the Palestinian leader’s strategy of taking gradual steps to transform the Islamist Hamas terrorist organization into a legitimate political party rather than seeking to crush it. For the first time, Bush mentioned Jerusalem as a place where Israel should not create facts on the ground that may prejudge final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. And — in an apparent reversal from assurances given to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon last year — the president asserted that only a mutual agreement achieved in bilateral negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians could serve as a basis for changes to the pre-1967 borders of Gaza and the West Bank.
Bush also pledged $50 million in direct aid to Abbas — a step that had been opposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish community’s main pro-Israel lobbying organization.
Jewish communal insiders and observers offered several explanations for the silence of most pro-Israel forces in the face of such efforts by the administration to support Abbas.
First and foremost, “there is a general understanding that Abbas is not Yasser Arafat and that understanding has gone a long way to give people hope and a realization that no matter how difficult things are, there is at least a chance for a new chapter,” said David Makovsky, who directs the project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What really energized the groups in the past was the sense that Arafat was committing highway robbery. When you don’t have an Arafat who is seen as being openly manipulative — that makes things different.”
Another factor, some communal insiders said, was the strong sense in the Jewish community that criticizing Bush — publicly or privately — could cause more damage than good, for two main reasons. First, many Jewish communal leaders believe that Bush and Sharon are well synchronized, with the president taking most of his cues in navigating the peace process from the veteran Israeli leader. Second, some Jewish groups worry about a White House known for its intolerance of dissent.
“With this White House, it is ‘either you’re with us or against us.’ And if they see you as opposing them, they cut you out,” said a senior official at a national Jewish organization.
Some Jewish communal leaders and Israeli diplomats argued that the president’s comments at his May 26 Rose Garden press conference with Abbas were not a cause for concern, because his words were carefully crafted to allow for a great deal of ambiguity.
“That is the kind of ambiguity that is the oxygen of diplomacy; let me just say that we were not surprised by anything that Bush said,” an Israeli diplomat stated, apparently suggesting that the comments were somehow coordinated with Israel.
Whether they were or not, it appears that someone was asking the White House to clear the fog surrounding one point. The president, at the press conference, said that “any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 armistice lines must be mutually agreed to.”
The language was similar to the formulation in an April 2004 letter of assurances that Bush gave to Sharon. But some in Israel presented Bush’s remarks last week as a departure from his previously stated position that major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank should remain in Israeli hands as part of a permanent settlement.
A day after the press conference, a spokesman from the National Security Council called the Washington correspondent of Israel’s government-run radio and television stations to clarify that there has been no change in U.S. policy. The White House has initiated such calls in the past, in response to clarification requests from Sharon’s office.
But American officials did not offer any clarification regarding Bush’s position on the so-called “Hamas question” dividing Abbas and Sharon.
Israel maintains that co-opting the terrorist group into the democratic system without dismantling its military wing only legitimizes terrorism and, as a result, strengthens it. Abbas’s position, as articulated in a meeting he had with Jewish communal leaders an hour before his meeting with Bush, is that as a result of bringing the armed Islamist groups into the democratic process, these organizations are gradually transforming into political entities that will eventually accept and respect the Palestinian Authority’s monopoly on the use of force.
Several of the Jewish activists who attended the meeting with Abbas said they found his position unconvincing. One of them — Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office, characterized Abbas’s scenario as “more wishful thinking than grounded in reality.”
In a subsequent White House press briefing, Bush and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, sent mixed messages regarding the president’s position on handling Hamas. On the one hand, Bush asserted that “all who engage in terror are the enemies of a Palestinian state and must be held to account.” On the other hand, when asked if he believes that the terrorist groups should be “shut up,” Bush said that groups such as Hamas would be rejected at the ballot box by “Palestinian moms” who want their children to grow up in peace.
“This issue of what [Abbas] is doing in confronting rejectionists is going to be an issue that needs to be clarified” at a time when the Bush administration is seeking ambiguity, Makovsky said. He added, “Bush is not going out of his way to disabuse Abbas of his approach on Hamas at this moment, because he is worried that he might put some cold water on Abbas and hurt him domestically.”
Jewish communal leaders said that although the Hamas issue may potentially create friction between Jerusalem and Washington, it is not likely to flare up before the July 17 Palestinian Legislative Council elections and not before the mid-August Israeli pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank.
The administration is trying to buy Abbas time in order to let him gain the strength and legitimacy he needs to confront Hamas, said Martin Raffel, acting executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“What I think Abbas is saying, and the administration seems to agree, is, ‘Give me at least until after the parliamentary elections, and if the factions don’t give up their arms voluntarily after the elections, that would be the time to confront them,” Raffel said.
“Once the elections are behind him, he can confront them with the legitimacy of the elections having taken place,” he said, adding, “We will have to wait and see whether he actually does that.”
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that it would be a mistake for the Bush administration to adopt a policy of constructive ambiguity in public statements regarding the peace process.
“Now that the United States is back in the thick of peace diplomacy, the administration’s policy stances should be as principled and wise as those earlier positions were, and senior officials’ public utterances should match whatever private messages they send,” Satloff stated. “U.S. leaders should take special care with every word they utter or do not utter. On her upcoming visit to the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will have an opportunity to clarify what was said — and not said — in Washington last week.”