WASHINGTON (Jul. 29)
While Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas received the red- carpet treatment from the White House last week, he received a much cooler reception on Capitol Hill.
Abbas’ first official trip gave the Palestinian leader an opportunity to thank President Bush for $20 million in direct aid and for the president’s support for the prime minister’s steps toward peace.
But in congressional meetings, Abbas faced sharp questions from lawmakers about his ability to lead, his efforts to date to combat terrorism and his criticisms of Israeli actions.
That is in sharp contrast to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose meetings with lawmakers were limited this time around but who often receives warm welcomes from congressional leaders.
He said lawmakers are sympathetic to Abbas because they see him as an alternative to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, but they have yet to see substance.
Many members of Congress support Sharon’s anti-terrorism measures and his timetable for moving forward in the peace process.
So, for example, while Bush called on Sharon to keep in mind how his defensive measures affect the peace process — presumably referring to the fence Israel is building to keep out terrorists — some lawmakers wrote Bush on the eve of Sharon’s visit to emphasize that how the fence is necessary for Israel’s security.
Abbas spent considerable time on Capitol Hill during his first official visit last week.
He met with congressional leaders in both the Senate and the House of Representatives on July 24, presenting them with a wish list of ways to strengthen his government and promote the international “road map” for peace.
Among his requests was help to pressure Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, to reconsider the security fence and to allow Arafat freedom of movement.
“Abbas was businesslike,” said a Democratic House aide. “He said, ‘This is what I need and this is why I need it.’ “
But while Abbas impressed some with what they called his straightforward responses, others said they were concerned about his reluctance to dismantle Palestinian terrorist groups.
Many in Israel believe that unless the groups are dismantled, they will use the three-month cease-fire to which they agreed to rebuild and expand their infrastructure, leading to an eventual escalation in attacks.
“I don’t think that he’s particularly keen on cracking down on terrorist groups the way we would like but wants to emphasize the predominance of the Palestinian Authority,” said the aide, who asked not to be identified.
Sources say some lawmakers resented Abbas’ ability to shift the focus in the conflict away from Palestinian reform toward issues such as Israel’s building of a security fence.
“He put his best case forward to the committee,” she told JTA. “I just don’t know whether the answers were tough enough.”
Despite the ambivalence expressed by many, one Democratic aide in the Senate said, “The view of most people was that Abbas is a smart guy and needs our support.”
On the aid front, meanwhile, lawmakers are looking for signs that the aid will be put to good use and that there will be proper monitoring.
Many believe that replicating the humanitarian projects supported by the terrorist groups would lessen the terrorists’ support in the Arab world and help to legitimize Abbas and the new government.
However, Abbas has yet to give Congress a list of projects, sources said.
As discussions of aid continue, Ros-Lehtinen said Congress will work to make sure money sent to the Palestinian Authority has “as much oversight as possible.”
In reality, Congress is likely to stay out of Middle East peacemaking for a little while, simply because many lawmakers will spend most of August in their home districts.
On Tuesday, Sharon was able to meet only with Senate leaders because the House of Representatives has already begun its summer recess.
Even so, several groups of House members are going to the region this summer, trips that lawmakers often use as opportunities to show their support to the Jewish state.
He met with Sharon before the prime minister departed for Washington and said on Tuesday, the day Bush and Sharon met, “Both Bush and Sharon are committed to ending global terror and finally bringing peace to the Middle East. I commend both leaders for their unwavering determination to end Palestinian terrorism.”
Sharon has many allies on Capitol Hill — especially in leadership positions — and his meetings with them, whether in Washington or Jerusalem, are often more to inform the lawmakers, rather than to push for action.
One issue Congress may weigh in on when lawmakers return in the fall is the security fence issue, but it is not yet clear how.
The fence, which has been under construction for more than a year and which Palestinians oppose, has been making headlines mostly because Abbas appears to have gotten support for his view from Bush and the White House national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
While some lawmakers have already told Bush they support the fence, others remain concerned about its impact. Over the last month, Palestinians have been circulating a multimedia presentation to Washington insiders — including Rice — about the fence’s effect on Palestinian living conditions.
Israel says the fence is necessary to keep out suicide bombers, but the Palestinians worry that it is setting a de facto border between Israel and the Palestinians.
Ros-Lehtinen said the fence is an untested issue because it is so new, but she speculated that many in Congress would back Israel on this issue.
Engel went further, saying Congress will need to support the security fence, and that lawmakers backed it in their discussions with Abbas.
He said that when the Palestinian leader compared the fence to the Berlin Wall, lawmakers countered that the Berlin Wall kept people in, while the Israeli fence keeps people out.
If the fence remains a sticking point in September, the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington will likely call on Congress to put that support in writing.