Washington - In the wake of this week’s tête-à-tête here between Ehud Olmert and George Bush, a high-stakes debate is shaping up in Washington over just how much American money should go to the troubled Palestinian leadership.
During the visit, Olmert and Bush made a joint call for immediate American aid to bolster the new government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which took office this week following the Hamas takeover of Gaza. After years of pushing for restrictions on any such assistance, the statement represented a dramatic policy shift for both leaders — one that seems to have taken pro-Israeli activists by surprise. Indeed, the request received a cautious reading from American Jewish organizations and from several members of Congress, who have argued that Abbas must adhere to a set of conditions before he can be provided with financial and political assistance.
Facing this skepticism, Olmert made an impassioned pitch for aid to Abbas.
“We need to see the new situation with the Palestinians as an opportunity which will lead eventually to talks on forming a Palestinian state,” Olmert said in a press briefing following his Tuesday meeting at the White House. “We need to strengthen the financial situation in the Palestinian Authority and to create opportunities for cooperation.”
Olmert’s trip to the United States coincided with some of the most intense battles between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party in Gaza, which ended with Fatah being driven out of Gaza and Hamas being driven out of the Palestinian government. Both the United States and the European Union have frozen aid to the Palestinian government since Hamas won the elections in January of last year. While the E.U. announced that it was immediately releasing the funds, the move is likely to take longer in the United States.
Last Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented an aid package that would release existing funds for the Palestinians and give a boost to Palestinian refugee assistance, but the proposals, which formally do not need congressional approval, will not be processed before lawmakers get a chance to examine the administration’s request.
Pro-Israel lobbyists and members of Congress who deal with Middle East policy have generally been skeptical about aid to the P.A. When Abbas first came to power after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, Congress imposed strict limitations on funds for the Palestinians and demanded that the administration provide detailed reports regarding every dollar spent in the Palestinian territories — a position supported by pro-Israel lobbyists. Now, however, those same Jewish groups are being asked — by the Israeli government itself — to ease the pressure on lawmakers involved in decisions about aid to the Palestinians.
“The Palestinian government needs to get an opportunity for aid, and we definitely intend to let it fulfill its mission of stability in Judea and Samaria and give services and reinforce its authority,” Olmert told reporters after his Tuesday meeting with Bush. “It’s reasonable that those who share our views will do the same.”
The need to strengthen Abbas was conveyed to the Jewish leaders in a meeting this past Thursday at the White House, with President Bush, Rice and other senior advisers. Bush praised Abbas in the meeting and said that he is a moderate who recognizes Israel and seeks peace.
Olmert also consulted with Jewish leaders before meeting with Bush. Last Sunday, in a conversation with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Olmert presented a new plan for approaching the Fatah-led government. He told the Jewish communal leaders about his intention both to support Abbas and to release Palestinian tax revenues held by Israel.
The reaction was mixed. Seymour Reich, president of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, said that “it is urgent for the Jewish community to let Congress know they need to back the administration and give the needed assistance.” But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “the situation is far from clarified” and that he still has concerns regarding Abbas.
Pro-Israel lobbyists made it clear that while they support the proposals made by the Bush administration this week, there are still some outstanding issues that Abbas needs to address — including, most significantly, assurance that he will not try to resume ties with the Hamas or seek a national rapprochement. The issue of breaking all ties with Hamas is expected to take center stage in the next few weeks and months, as the new Palestinian government begins to forge its policy. Fatah has not cut ties with Hamas in the past, and it still may want to reach out to the group once tensions in Gaza ease.
Pro-Israel activists in Washington stress that while the Hamas issue should be the main demand for Abbas, there are other items in need of resolution, including the reform of security forces and the struggle for more financial transparency.
Congressman Tom Lantos, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he was fully supportive of renewing aid to the Palestinians, but added that “we have to make certain that none of our aid for the Palestinians ends up in Hamas’s bloody hands.”
A different note was struck by New York Democrat Gary Ackerman, who chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East. Ackerman accused the Bush administration of not helping Abbas earlier, when he could have used the aid to assert his power — “They are a day late and a dollar short,” he said — and argued that Abbas’s new government is trustworthy and understands the need for transparency.
“They talked the talk and they walked the walk,” Ackerman said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.