WASHINGTON (Jan. 11)
It was an invitation without an RSVP. Come on over, President Bush told his newly elected Palestinian Authority counterpart — but let’s wait to set a date. The check is in the mail I’m just not sure how much.
The decisive election Sunday of Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate favored by Israel, the United States and the international community, has been followed by a flood of “What nexts?” that are decidedly less decisive.
That leaves open crucial questions about the coming year, including the long-term viability of Abbas and his commitment to ending violence, as well as his role in assuming control in the Gaza Strip and areas of the West Bank once Israel pulls out.
Bush called Abbas on Monday to congratulate him. “The president had a very good conversation with President-elect Abbas yesterday,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “The president called to congratulate him.”
Phone calls from Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came after Abbas extended an olive branch to Israel, saying “We extend a hand to our neighbors. We are ready for peace, peace based on justice.” That was just the message Bush and Sharon were waiting to hear before extending congratulations.
Bush’s invitation to Abbas was dramatic, in that it was the first to a Palestinian Authority president since the Clinton administration. Bush’s policy was to isolate Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, whom it linked to terrorism.
But it was also hedged: “I look forward to talking with him at the appropriate time,” Bush said Monday. “I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here.”
Bush’s reluctance to set a time for a call and a date for a visit suggested that the pre-election hesitancy to openly embrace Abbas had not passed with his election.
“The United States has decided not to immediately invite him because if he comes to the United States now he’d have to go home empty-handed,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes greater U.S. engagement in the Middle East.
That’s because the administration is looking to see what first steps Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will take.
It is also in part because both Bush and Sharon are in the process of switching administrations.
Bush is clearing away much of his top diplomatic staff as he heads into his second term.
Sharon is consolidating a national unity government with the Labor Party and United Torah Judaism, having jettisoned his previous hard-line and secularist partners in order to win parliamentary support for his withdrawal plan. U.S. officials have said that embracing Abbas during the Palestinian’s tenure as prime minister without allowing him to show immediate dividends helped scuttle his bid to wrest power away from Arafat then.
A public embrace now without showing results could end the surge of Palestinian optimism that accompanied the elections.
And Palestinian officials say that Abbas needs results if he is to survive as a leader.
Diana Buttu, who has negotiated with the Israelis in the past as an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, cautioned that Abbas should not be seen as Arafat’s successor as the leader of the Palestinian people, but merely as leader of the Palestinian Authority.
“He is now the person responsible for a very small percentage of the West Bank” and the Gaza Strip, she said Monday in Washington, where she delivered a post-election analysis. “He is a president who is living under direct Israeli rules and conditions.”
While Abbas got an official 62 percent of the vote, she said that only 70 percent of eligible voters actually were registered, and of those only 70 percent voted in the elections. That adds up to just a 50 percent turnout from the eligible population. This, suggested Buttu, is a sign that many Palestinians were going to wait and see with Abbas.
Turnout for last month’s first round of municipal elections in the West Bank was much higher, she said, because power had devolved to local authorities, a fact she attributed to the ravaging of the Palestinian national infrastructure through four years of the intifada and Israeli military action.
“There is a realization, an awareness that power is no longer wielded on a national level,” she said, suggesting that the Islamist Hamas group sat out the national elections but contended in the municipal elections because the local authorities offered more immediate powers.
“Palestinians are going to be looking to Mahmoud Abbas to change their conditions,” she said. “If Israel squanders this opportunity, my fear is that it’s going to get even uglier.”
Israelis, naturally, pointed out that it is not only Israel that has an opportunity to seize — the Palestinians also have much to do.
“There’s not going to be any disengagement with 10 missiles slamming into Israel every day,” said an Israeli official, referring to the rockets being fired against Israeli targets in Gaza.
For his part, Bush made clear he had expectations of both sides.
“It’s going to be very important for Israel to fulfill its obligation on the withdrawal from the territories that they have pledged to withdraw from,” he said Monday.
“It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states, living side by side in peace, and that as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israeli government support the development of those institutions, and recognize that it is essential that there be a viable economy, that there be a viable health care system, that people be — that people be allowed to start building a society that meets their hopes and needs.”
Bush also emphasized his expectation that “the Palestinian leadership consolidate security forces, so that they can fight off those few who still have the desire to destroy Israel as a part of their philosophy.”
As for the U.S. role, the White House appeared once again to be adopting a wait-and-see posture.
U.S. officials said funding for the Palestinians would be forthcoming — but how much depends on how events unfold.
“We’re going to take a look at what action we might take as well as what funding,” National Security Council spokesman Shawn McCormack told CNN.
Bush suggested that more answers would be forthcoming at a conference in London next month, which will be attended by Condoleezza Rice, his designated secretary of state.
He said he looked forward to helping the conference in London, aimed at helping the Palestinians develop their institutions, and to helping “Abu Mazen’s vision of a peaceful, active, vibrant state to become reality.”