Washington - As the situation in Gaza deteriorates, Palestinian and Israeli leaders alike are voicing doubts about the feasibility of realizing President Bush’s goal of a peace agreement by the end the year.
Not much optimism was heard this week from Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during a visit to Washington. Fayyad, who is seen by the Bush administration as an agent of reform in the Palestinian government, stressed to his hosts the lack of progress since the peace process was relaunched last November in Annapolis, Md.
“What I see has not happened, not happened to the extent it should or it can, is progress on these issues, progress on the implementation of commitments under the road map,” Fayyad said in a speech Monday at the National Press Club. The prime minister accused Israel of speeding up the pace of construction in the West Bank and of adding more roadblocks since the Annapolis conference.
Skepticism about the prospects for peace was equally palpable among Israeli officials. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said this week that the most that can be expected by the end of 2008 is a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles, not a full peace accord.
“I believe President Bush is not expecting a Palestinian state to be established by the end of the year,” Ramon said.
At the Annapolis conference, Bush announced the goal of reaching a peace agreement by the end of his term in office. He urged both sides to engage in talks on final-status issues. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice placed the Middle East conflict at the top of their foreign policy agenda and have since taken several measures to boost the peace process, including dispatching three generals to the region to oversee the process and taking Bush’s first tour of Israel and the West Bank as president.
But with tensions rising in Gaza, as well as on its borders with Israel and Egypt, the renewed push for peace appears to have stalled. Israel is once again considering launching a ground incursion into Gaza in order to thwart the daily launching of Qassam rockets against Sderot and other towns in the western Negev.
The deteriorating situation in Gaza was the subject of talks Monday between Fayyad and Rice. It was also the focus of a meeting between the Palestinian prime minister and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley that was joined by Bush. According to diplomatic sources, the main issue raised by American officials was the need to improve security in Gaza and the possibility of transferring to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority control over the border crossings into Gaza.
One of the main goals of Fayyad’s visit to Washington was to demonstrate to the Bush administration and Congress that he had reformed the financial operations of the P.A. American lawmakers have for years expressed concern about transparency and proper management practices in the P.A.
The Fayyad government has to date received $218 million of the $555 million that Washington pledged at a donor conference in Paris this past December. Fayyad was scheduled to meet Thursday with the congressional committees in charge of approving aid to the Palestinians so that he could make the case for transferring the rest of the sum.
A congressional staff member working on the issue told the Forward that there is bipartisan support for giving financial aid to the Fatah-led government, but added that members of Congress are increasingly scrutinizing how the funds are used.
“People want to know when we will start seeing some progress in return for the money we’re pouring in,” the congressional staffer said.
While he was in Washington, Fayyad expressed gratitude for the surge in international financial aid to the Palestinians, but he said he would like to see more money going toward direct budgetary assistance instead of being invested in long-term development programs. When asked Monday what the P.A. needs most from the United States, Fayyad responded with just one word: “cash.”
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.