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As Capitals Cautiously Greet Palestinian Deal, Israel’s Allies in D.C. Push for Pressuring Hamas

Washington – Even as American and Israeli officials reserve judgment on the new Palestinian unity deal, some of Jerusalem’s allies in Washington are opposing the Fatah-Hamas coalition government and pressing for the West to isolate it.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to visit the region next week for a three-way summit Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president. In advance of the meeting, Israeli and American officials are holding back criticism of the new unity deal, but Jewish groups are urging Washington to keep the pressure on the P.A. and refrain from making any concessions until Hamas recognizes Israel.

Until now, Western governments have been boycotting the Hamas-led Palestinian government over its refusal to recognize Israel, disavow violence and pledge its adherence to previous deals with Israel. The Palestinian unity deal does not deal directly with the three conditions, but it does include a letter from Abbas to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya calling on the new government “to respect” the agreements already signed with Jerusalem.

Israel, the United States and the European Union have stated that there is still a need to hear a clear statement from Hamas recognizing Israel and rejecting terrorism. The major pro-Israel lobby in the United States was taking an even tougher line.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose executive committee includes representatives of dozens of the country’s most prominent Jewish organizations, released a talking-points memo declaring that “the proposed Palestinian ‘unity government’ fails to meet the world’s minimal conditions for the resumption of aid to and recognition of the Hamas-controlled PalestinianAuthority.” Aipac’s memo, which was circulated in congressional offices Monday, states that the new agreement allows Hamas to remain in control of the Palestinian government and quotes Hamas leaders vowing to continue the armed struggle and to refuse recognizing Israel.

The bottom line, according to Aipac, is that international pressure on Hamas should be sustained, since depriving aid from the P.A. is turning the Palestinian people against the Islamic militant group. “Easing international pressure before Hamas accepts the international community’s demands will only alleviate the Palestinian public’s pressure on Hamas and allow it to strengthen its position with the electorate,” the Aipac paper stated.

Most mainstream Jewish groups refrained from taking an official stand on the new Palestinian government. Yet in meetings in Washington and in Israel, leaders of major Jewish organizations expressed concern about the American push to discuss final status issues and skepticism over still considering Abbas as a partner for peace after he agreed to sit in a unity government with Hamas.

In its “Daily Alert” news summary, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has posted mostly critical articles about the Palestinian agreement. The Presidents Conference, an umbrella body of 51 national groups widely viewed as the Jewish community’s collective voice, sends its alert out each day to thousands of Jewish activists across the country.

The approach presented by Aipac in its memo seems to also be resonating in Congress, according to several sources, who said this week that a letter or resolution making similar points could be expected in a few days. Congress could stall Bush’s request for more than $80 million in assistance to Abbas’s guards. “If there is no difference between Abbas and the Hamas, who are we giving the money to?” said one congressional staffer.

This week Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat who chairs a subcomittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said that she was holding up the $86 million White House grant for P.A. security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas. Lowey said that she had placed a hold on the grant pending the clarification of its purposes, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, wrote a letter to Rice Tuesday asking the administration to abandon its plan to send aid to Abbas, in which he cited the unity deal.

The national unity government agreement, reached February 8 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, divides the power in the P.A. between the two factions, with Abbas remaining president and appointing six Cabinet ministers and Haniya maintaining his post as prime minister and choosing another nine members. Both factions will agree on another five independent candidates to serve in the Cabinet.

Liberal groups appeared to be searching for middle ground with their statements. The Israel Policy Forum issued a statement welcoming the cessation of violence among the Palestinians, while also calling on the new government to adhere to the international community’s three conditions. Americans for Peace Now called the agreement “a positive step,” but also said that the three conditions had not been met. And Britz Tzedek v’Shalom welcomed the accord, pointing out that it could help bring stability to the region.

Israel’s response to the Palestinian unity deal has been relatively cautious compared to some American Jewish groups. “At this stage,” Olmert told his Cabinet members in their weekly meeting Sunday, “Israel neither rejects nor accepts the agreement. Like the international community, we are studying what was achieved in the agreement, what it says and the basis of the consensus.”

Olmert’s approach reflects a shift in Israeli policy, which started off with a complete rejection of the agreement. The reason for the shift, according to Israeli sources, was the assurances Israel received from the Madrid Quartet —the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — that the Palestinians are still required to live up to the three conditions.

A diplomatic source in Washington raised a different explanation for Israel’s mild reaction to the accord. “It would embarrass the U.S.,” to pick a fight with the Palestinians on the eve of Rice’s visit and her attempt to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres voiced on Tuesday an even more moderate approach to the Fatah-Hamas agreement, saying that “we are not waiting for formal recognition on behalf of the Hamas, but for a practical recognition seen in their willingness to negotiate with Israel.”

Both Olmert and Peres stressed the importance of the Palestinians releasing Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier being held since last summer by Hamas, as a way to make headway in negotiations.

In Washington, Bush administration officials preferred to defer their judgment on the Palestinian agreement, stating the need to wait for more information and not to base a decision on a draft resolution.

Middle East expert Robert Malley, a former Middle East adviser to the Clinton administration, said that the agreement poses a dilemma for the United States. “The national unity government is inconsistent with everything the administration wanted,” said Malley, who now heads the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group. “At the same time, it is difficult for the administration to come out against it.” The reason for that, according to Malley, is that two major American allies, Abbas and the Saudis, are backing the agreement, and denouncing it would be seen as undermining both of them.

“My recommendation would be to truly give this government a chance,” Malley added, arguing that the American insistence on setting rules for the new government had only caused negotiations between Fatah and Hamas to drag on and led to the weakening of Abbas.

The first question facing the United States and the international community is whether the economic boycott of the P.A. will be lifted, now that the authority is run by a national unity government.

Administration officials and European diplomats have made it clear that this policy is not about to be changed until there is a clear acceptance of the quartet’s three conditions. The external relations commissioner of the E.U., Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said Monday that “when it becomes possible to re-engage with a national unity government, and we are not there yet, we could gradually resume support to Palestinian Authority ministries and agencies.”

So far, Russia seems to be the only member of the quartet advocating renewing assistance to the P.A., praising the Mecca agreement as a positive step.

A phone consultation last week between foreign ministers of the quartet members helped iron out differences on the issue. A joint statement, put out following the conversation, reaffirmed the need for the new Palestinian government to accept the three conditions.

In public remarks this week, Abbas called the accord “an internal Palestinian issue” and said it should not make any difference for the international community.

Dianna Buttu, a former member of the PLO legal team and a consultant to Abbas, said this week that for Fatah, achieving peace and unity within the P.A. is now a higher priority than lifting international sanctions.

“They want to maintain Palestinian unity. The whole issue of the economic boycott became secondary,” Buttu said in a briefing at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

While it is clear that economic assistance won’t be flowing in the near future to the P.A., the future of diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians is still uncertain.

In a meeting with Jewish leaders last week, minutes after the agreement was announced February 8 in Mecca, Rice said that the United States would continue to see Abbas as a partner for negotiations and at the same time would continue to refuse to sit with ministers that represent Hamas.

On Monday, Rice will sit down in Jerusalem with Abbas and Olmert for a summit planned before the national unity government was agreed upon.

The meeting’s original goal was to provide Abbas with a “political horizon” regarding a final-status solution that would strengthen him internally. In her meeting with Jewish leaders, Rice said that talks on “the final destination” of the peace process are meant to show the Palestinian people that the key to an independent state is in the hands of Abbas and the moderates, not Hamas. She also reassured the Jewish leaders that the American push for final-status talks does not mean pressuring Israel and would not include the United States putting forward its own final-status proposals.

Days later, during a meeting at the American embassy in Tel Aviv, Jewish communal concern about moving forward with Abbas as a partner was evident.

Members of the Presidents Conference, as part of their annual mission to Israel, were meeting with the American ambassador to Israel, Richard Jones. In his presentation to the group, Jones referred to Abbas as a moderate leader and spoke of the need to strengthen him.

When it was time for questions, Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America and a staunch opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, stood up and lectured Jones about extremism in the P.A. under Abbas, including terrorism and incitement in the media and in text books. “On the basis of this, Ambassador Jones, how can you call Abbas a moderate?” Klein concluded.

The reaction, according to several participants, was telling of the views of current Jewish leadership.

“They all broke out in applause,” Klein said, “Ambassador Jones was stunned.”

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