Bush Moving Ahead on P.A. Reform and Election — with Bundles of Cash

Anyone who has been through a messy divorce and then reconciliation can tell you: Money makes it all so much easier. That’s the thinking this week as the United States dumps cash wherever it can to grease the wheels of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Everyone is getting stocking stuffers: Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan.

Examples of recent munificence were the administration’s extension last week of loan guarantees to Israel; discussion of new investment opportunities when Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited Washington last week; and the U.S.-Israel-Egypt trade agreement announced Tuesday, which could bring $150 million to Israel and create up to 250,000 jobs for Egyptians in the next year.

"It’s a very important development, it’s something we’ve been working on for some time," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of the agreement. "We think it’s a very positive thing and offers opportunities to Israelis and Egyptians, in terms of business, jobs, exports and modernization of their economy."

As is typical of any rocky reconciliation process, not everyone is happy with the distribution of the wealth — leading the United States to find novel ways to try to rectify the situation.

Faced with congressional pressure to keep $20 million the administration had promised to the Palestinians from going directly to the Palestinian Authority, which Israel fears would use it to finance terrorism, the Bush administration agreed — but then found an extra $3.5 million to go directly to the Palestinian Authority to facilitate Jan. 9 elections.

The money is rollover cash from last year’s U.S. Agency for International Development budget, an administration official said, and therefore isn’t subject to further congressional review.

The extra cash — $2.5 million for the elections and $1 million for foreign observers — caught Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon off guard. He made clear to a top-level U.S. congressional delegation that he was not happy.

"Prime Minister Sharon said that the Americans must focus on investments in economic projects in the Palestinian Authority and transfer funds for this purpose only, and not for economic budgets, since such funds will either disappear or be used to finance terrorism," an Israeli statement said Monday after Sharon met with Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), their parties’ respective whips.

In the past Israel could count on friends on Capitol Hill to stymie such efforts, but the flurry of recent Congressional visits — Hoyer and Blunt were the third top-drawer delegation to visit the region since P.A. President Yasser Arafat died Nov. 11 — suggest that a president buoyed by his re-election last month and his party’s control of both houses of Congress isn’t about to brook opposition.

The Bush administration is eager to get Mahmoud Abbas, the likely winner of the P.A. presidency and a relative moderate who has "clicked" with Bush in the past, in place for future peace talks.

U.S. officials now speak in glowing terms about reform in a Palestinian Authority they were going out of their way to shun just months ago. But that was before the death of Arafat, who was seen in Washington as the principle obstacle to peace in the region.

Announcing the P.A. handout at a donors meeting last week in Oslo, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said it reflected "our confidence in the direction of the P.A.’s reform program, their fulfillment of the mid-2004 World Bank Reform Trust Fund benchmarks for financial management, and our expectation that reform will continue to be implemented energetically."

The administration is so eager to make sure Palestinian elections go smoothly that it’s sending one of its toughest critics on Middle East policy — former President Jimmy Carter — to monitor the elections.

"We need to remember what the big issue is here, and that’s working with the Palestinians to ensure that the Jan. 9 presidential election results in an outcome that produces a credible and clear result," Boucher said Dec. 3. "That means us, that means the Israelis, it certainly means the Palestinians."

That doesn’t mean Bush wants to plunge full-speed ahead with peace after the P.A. elections, just that he wants to make sure credible elections take place.

In fact, Bush has made clear that he wants to see Palestinian democratic reform linked to progress in any peace process.

"Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement," he said earlier this month in Canada. "This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy."

One signal of Bush’s caution has been a reticence in the administration to praise Abbas too much. In an interview published Tuesday, Abbas criticized the violence of the Palestinian uprising, saying it had damaged rather than enhanced the Palestinians’ cause, but the Bush administration would not be drawn into praise.

"I think we’ve made our views very clear that it’s important for the Palestinian Authority and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority to take steps to fight terror," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday when pressed to praise Abbas’ remarks.

Israel and the United States were taken aback when Abbas refused to condemn a bombing this weekend that killed five Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians said it would be difficult for a Palestinian leader to condemn an attack on Israeli soldiers serving in the Gaza Strip.

"Developments in the region depend on the question of whether or not the Palestinians understand that they must act against terrorism," Sharon told the congressmen. "To my regret, we have not seen any change up until now."

The incremental approach is not going down well with Europeans and Arabs, who fear that making Palestinian reform a precondition for Israeli concessions will undermine Abbas after the elections.

At a conference in Morocco over the weekend, Arab foreign ministers berated U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell over U.S. support for Israel — a frequent refrain from Arab leaders who say they can’t allow political freedom in their own countries while the Palestinian problem festers.

"We can’t rush it," Powell said, frustrated that a meeting meant to garner support for Bush’s reform-for-peace initiative was going south.

Bush wants the Europeans and Arabs on board for his approach but has made clear that he will go ahead without them. He recently enlisted Canada and Pakistan, both eager to shore up influence with the Bush administration, to prod the Palestinians to govern more responsibly.

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