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U.S., Israel at Odds Over Palestinian Coalition

Washington – The Bush administration has dealt Jerusalem and its allies a series of unexpected policy defeats regarding the formation of the new Palestinian unity government.

Israel’s Cabinet decided earlier this week to boycott members of the Palestinian Authority governing coalition, and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States has called on the White House to do the same. In stark contrast, Bush administration officials are opening up a dialogue with moderate members of the P.A. coalition.

In another setback for some of Israel’s staunchest allies in Washington, the State Department is renewing its attempt to win approval of an aid package for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. In still another, lawmakers narrowed the scope of an anti-Palestinian letter that is being circulated in the Senate.

The defeats come as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby, is coming under intense attack from liberal critics. Billionaire financier and Democratic donor George Soros published a lengthy piece in The New York Review of Books, saying that “it was up to the American Jewish community itself to rein in the organization that claims to represent it” (see story on Page A1). A similar piece, by Gary Kamiya, appeared Tuesday in the online journal Salon. And, in his column Sunday in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof asserted that “American politicians have learned to muzzle themselves” when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Even as critics painted Aipac as an invincible lobbying force, the organization appeared to suffer several defeats.

On Tuesday, America’s consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles, met with P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah. The move reflected the Bush administration’s new policy of engaging with some members of the Palestinian Cabinet, even while maintaining the international financial boycott against the P.A.

According to Israeli and Palestinian sources, the United States is also expected to maintain contact with another Cabinet member, Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr. The Bush administration is also keeping up contacts with Abbas, who was chosen in elections separate from the parliamentary voting that swept Hamas into power, and who is not part of the unity coalition.

“It is clear that cracks are starting to appear as a result of the unity government,” said Edward Abington, a former American diplomat in the region who now lobbies in Washington for the P.A. According to Abington, the administration made a decision to keep an open channel with moderate Palestinian Cabinet ministers, including Fayyad and Abu Amr, and will monitor the actions of the new government before deciding on additional steps.

On the financial side, the Bush administration is maintaining its boycott of the P.A. government.

The United States and its partners in the Quartet — Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — reaffirmed this week their resolution not to provide any direct funding to the P.A. government before it lives up to the three conditions set by the international community more than a year ago: recognize Israel, renounce terror and accept existing agreements with Jerusalem.

The Palestinians would like America to relax some of the banking restrictions imposed last year that prevent any financial institution around the world from handling bank transactions for the P.A. Fayyad would like to renew the activity of an account he opened in Arab Bank several years ago, through which the P.A. conducted all its business. The opening of this account, which the Palestinians used to abandon cash payments in favor of documented salaries, was viewed at the time by the United States as an important step toward ensuring financial transparency in the P.A.

For now, the United States is unwilling to discuss any change in its banking boycott before studying the actions of the new government.

Preventing dialogue with the Palestinian government was a main lobbying issue for Aipac, which held its annual policy conference in Washington a week ago. Thousands of Aipac members who went to Capitol Hill last week pressed their senators to sign on to a letter, written by Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Nevada Republican John Ensign, that urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to stay firm on refusing contact with a P.A. government that does not meet the three conditions set by the international community.

The initial language of the letter was seen by dovish Jewish groups and pro-Palestinian organizations as being too harsh and as excluding any negotiations with Palestinians, including Abbas and other moderate Fatah members who favor a settlement with Israel.

Several days after the signing campaign was launched, the letter was revised by its authors and a new version was sent out to Senate offices. Aipac officials said that the revisions reflected details in the final agreement on a national unity government reached March 17.

One revision, however, did not relate to any new developments — the change from the “Palestinian Authority” to the “Palestinian government,” apparently making clear that signatories were not calling for a boycott of Abbas.

Aipac sources point to 32 senators who have already signed the letter, which is expected to be sent to Rice next week. The sources stressed that the letter was well received, even in its initial version, by most lawmakers who were contacted by members of the lobby. Yet an internal memo of a staff member in Nelson’s office said that the revision was needed not only for updating the letter following developments on the ground but also to “clear up any misperception” regarding changes in American policy. “This sentence was never meant to call for a cut-off of funds to the office of President Abbas and we hope you will agree that the revision clarifies that,” the memo stated.

The hope, according to the memo, was that the revision would “enable” additional senators to sign the letter.

A Democratic staff member told the Forward this week that the early version of the letter was seen as too harsh, and was not welcomed by most foreign policy experts on Capitol Hill because it did not leave any room for negotiations with moderate Palestinians.

Aaron D. Miller, who spent years in the State Department as a Middle East negotiator, said that the differences between the United States and Israel on the issue of talking to Palestinian officials should not be viewed as a sign of trouble in the relations between the two countries.

“I don’t see anything resembling a significant rift between the U.S. and Israel,” Miller said.

Miller added that Rice, in her upcoming visit to the region next week, would try to “carve out the gray area” and define the nature of talks with Abbas, Fayyad and Abu Amr. “But there is no way we’re going to deal with Hamas,” he said.

Miller, who is now completing a comprehensive book on American policy regarding the Middle East conflict, suggested that Rice focus her talks with Palestinians on the release of kidnapped corporal Gilad Shalit and on maintaining the cease-fire, rather than arguing about principles and declarations.

While staying firm on denying any direct assistance for the P.A., the administration is renewing its efforts to gain approval of an aid package intended to help Abbas’s security forces. An initial $86 million plan encountered obstacles in Congress following a hold put on the funds by Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and a letter sent to Rice by the leading members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In testimony Wednesday to the House appropriations subcomittee on foreign affairs, Rice said that the administration was renewing its push for the aid package, but that the amount would be lower.

State Department officials have been trying to convince key lawmakers to approve the funding, while stressing that the money would not be spent directly by the Palestinians. The American military’s liaison to the region, Keith Dayton, and State Department officials have told members of Congress in private conversations that the administration would make sure that the money is spent to buy equipment for Abbas’s forces and would not go directly into the pocket of the Palestinian president. Congressional sources said that it was also made clear in these conversations that the administration would be willing to restructure the aid package in order to address some of the lawmakers’ concerns. At the same time, the administration underlined the importance of strengthening Abbas, even after he signed the national unity agreement with Hamas.

Several Jewish groups have also weighed in on the debate.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coalition of the main synagogue movements, several national Jewish organizations and more than 150 local Jewish communities, issued a statement that calls on the administration not to provide financial aid to the P.A. before it accepts the conditions of the Quartet. “Provisions included in the new platform [of the Palestinian government], and those very purposefully left out, place tall barriers on the path toward peace,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the JCPA.

The American Jewish Committee praised the Quartet for its decision not to renew direct funding to the P.A. The organization also condemned the government of Norway for being the only one in Europe to recognize the new Palestinian national unity coalition.

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