WASHINGTON (Jul. 22)
As the White House prepares for visits by the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, advocates for Israel are working to ensure that the Bush administration stays focused on the need to combat terrorism.
P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas arrives Friday and is expected to receive a warm welcome. American Jewish leaders are hoping to schedule a meeting with him, as are members of Congress.
Abbas’ visit — his first to the White House — is generating more buzz than that of Sharon, who is expected July 29. But both visits are focusing Washington’s attention on the need for further progress on the “road map” peace plan.
While there generally is much optimism about Abbas’ early steps toward peace, some in the U.S. Jewish community express concern that the White House will pressure Israel to do more than its share in the early stages of the peace plan.
Jewish leaders are reminding the administration that the first step toward peace must be the dismantling of terrorist groups in the Palestinian territories and throughout the Middle East.
Already, the Bush administration seems to be getting the message. On Monday, Bush blasted Syria and Iran for harboring and assisting terrorists, and said both Abbas and Sharon need more support from other leaders in the region.
Bush also called on all countries “interested in a peaceful solution in the Middle East” to support Abbas’ efforts, a direct jab at European leaders who continue to deal with P.A. President Yasser Arafat.
Israel and the United States have cut off contact with Arafat, whom they consider irredeemably involved in terrorism.
In contrast, Abbas clearly has the support of many in Washington and the Jewish community.
Lawmakers are endorsing White House efforts to strengthen Abbas. Specifically, 71 congressmen signed a letter to Bush supporting his recent decision to give $20 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, the first direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian government. Because of fears of P.A. corruption, previous aid has been given to nongovernmental organizations working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A staffer for one Jewish lawmaker said the letter, like the aid, was an acknowledgment that the Palestinians had made some steps in the right direction.
“We asked for a change and we got it,” he said, referring to the appointment of a new Palestinian leader, as Bush demanded in a landmark policy speech in June 2002. “We want this guy to succeed. We want him to succeed because it’s good for Israel.”
But, the aide said, the money is not a blank check: It comes with strong expectations that Abbas and his team will continue down the path toward peace.
Some are concerned that the accolades for Abbas will translate into pressure on Israel to make more concessions. Specifically, the Palestinians are demanding that Israel release more Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a cease-fire called recently by the main Palestinian terrorist organizations, even though Israel is not obligated to release prisoners under the road map.
Palestinian officials also have been pressing the White House and others in Washington over construction of a security fence designed to prevent West Bank terrorists from infiltrating Israel.
Palestinians say the fence goes over Palestinian land and prevents farmers from reaching their fields.
The White House’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, raised concerns about the fence during talks with Sharon in the Middle East last month. The administration fears Israel is unilaterally setting a border that will prejudge the outcome of possible future peace talks, though Israel says the fence is not a political border.
Several lawmakers, including Ackerman, signed a letter to Bush criticizing the administration for rebuking Israel over the fence. The White House is “mistakenly pressuring Israel to limit construction of this important security barrier,” the letter said.
The White House has assured Jewish leaders that it will not place undue pressure on Israel, and that its messages to Abbas and Sharon will be consistent with what it has said in the past — most of which has been well received in the Jewish community.
“We’re committed to speaking honestly to both sides,” a senior administration official said. “The president has said repeatedly that he will hold them to their responsibilities.”
Jewish officials believe Sharon will be told that the security fence is not helpful and will be pressured to release more Palestinian prisoners.
“But I don’t anticipate severe pressure brought to bear on Israel,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Sharon comes with a commitment to do what Israel can do to strengthen Abbas’ hand within the Palestinian community.”
The White House’s goal now is to provide an environment in which Abbas and his team can succeed, and concessions on prisoners and the fence would help, said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
“The question is whether there is the capacity right now for the Palestinians to do what they need to do,” Zogby said. “The strongest party is putting burdens on the weakest party that they can’t accomplish at this time.”
The White House and Israel should use the period of the terrorist groups’ cease-fire to strengthen Abbas, which might make it easier for him to dismantle the terror groups later, Zogby said.
But Jewish leaders are concerned that the Palestinians’ responsibility to eradicate terrorism is being pushed back, and want to see it emphasized as the first order of business.
“I think the time to bypass the critical issue has passed,” Raffel said. “We all need to focus on what it will take to put aside terrorism as a Palestinian tactic, and move to the diplomatic process.”
The second order of business, Jewish leaders say, is curbing incitement against Israel in the Palestinian media, mosques and schools.
While there is concern in the Jewish community, the general feeling is of strong support for Bush, and a propensity to expect the best from the president.
“I’m confident,” Lantos said. “And in the event that I should be mistaken, there will be some of us in Congress who will organize a very effective counterpressure.”