Washington - Pro-Israel lobbyists and legislators have become unexpected cheerleaders for the Palestinian leadership after the new Fatah-led Cabinet took action against Hamas.
In a memo sent out to congressional offices this week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee commended the new Palestinian government for “taking important steps needed for peace” and for breaking ties with Hamas, which now rules Gaza.
“If followed with consistent action, these promising steps can serve as the foundation for negotiations with Israel,” the Aipac memo reads.
Separately, Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, traveled to Ramallah to visit with the new Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Congress will soon vote on funding for the Palestinians, and Israel said he is now more disposed to supporting the aid.
“I want to see performance and benchmarks before making a decision,” Israel said, “but while in the past I did not want to see money go to a government headed by Hamas, I am now more willing to hear of aid for a government which excludes the Hamas.”
The pro-Israel lobby has long been a leading voice in demanding strict scrutiny of the Palestinian Authority and in focusing lawmakers’ attention on problems of accountability within the Palestinian leadership.
The new attitude in Washington toward the Fatah-led Palestinian government comes against a backdrop of recent successes by Hamas in Gaza. Since Hamas took over Gaza, rocket firing toward Israel has decreased, internal fighting has stopped and a kidnapped BBC reporter was released with the help of Hamas.
For Fatah, in contrast, changes on the ground in the West Bank are, so far, few and less visible.
The Aipac memo lists several recent steps taken by Abbas and Fayyad, including the dissolution of the national unity government with Hamas, the orders for presidential guards to take action against Hamas militants in the West Bank and the outlawing of militias in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian leaders also won praise for their rhetoric on the peace process and their renunciation of violence as a means of achieving political goals.
At the same time, Aipac stressed the need for the new Palestinian government to keep up the policy of rejecting Hamas and called on Arab countries to help Abbas by isolating Hamas both diplomatically and financially.
Aipac’s new policy memo comes as the administration begins consulting with Congress on changes to the proposed $86 million aid package for Abbas’s security forces, which was proposed by American military coordinator Keith Dayton. While Congress scaled down the original package, the State Department is now trying again to increase the aid, following the formation of the new Palestinian government in the West Bank.
Aipac did not oppose the increase in aid.
The funding issue was also central to the meeting between New York representative Israel and the Palestinian prime minister. Israel, a Democratic member of the House Appropriations Committee, told the Forward after the meeting that he is “slightly more comfortable” about approving money for the Palestinian guard.
In the meeting, Fayyad expressed his wish to see the P.A. improve ties with Congress, which has traditionally taken a more critical approach toward relations with the Palestinians than the administration. Fayyad, according to Rep. Israel, said that he “means business” and that the Palestinians are aware of the fact that Congress has been skeptical about releasing funds for the Palestinians.
Fayyad enjoys widespread support in the United States, from administration officials and from lawmakers who have praised the steps he has taken to ensure financial accountability in the P.A.
When she visits the region next week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to meet with Fayyad and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rice’s meetings will be part of the new push to support the Palestinian government, which will be complemented by the first visit of former British prime minister Tony Blair in his new capacity as the diplomatic quartet’s special envoy for the Middle East. Representatives of the quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — were scheduled to meet Wednesday in preparation for Blair’s mission.
A diplomatic source said that if progress is seen on the ground and the Palestinian government maintains its drive against violence, the next step could be an invitation for a high-level meeting in Washington between Palestinian and American leaders.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.