It was a classic case of “what one hand gives, the other takes away.” President Bush’s announcement Thursday of $50 million in funding for the Palestinian Authority reverses last month’s victory for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, when the pro-Israel lobby helped draft provisions in congressional appropriations that essentially blocked direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Bush’s news conference with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas also included tough language toward Israel, including warnings about Israeli settlement building and the West Bank security barrier.
The handout to the Palestinian Authority — just days after the mere mention of “President Bush” generated automatic cheers at AIPAC’s annual policy conference — defies bills from both houses of Congress last month.
Those bills all but ordered Bush to funnel $200 million in Palestinian aid money through nongovernmental organizations, to Israel, or even on a new tower for Hadassah Hospital — just about anywhere but the Palestinian Authority, which has been beset in the past by rampant corruption and ties to terrorism.
Bush’s gesture to the Palestinians, his criticism of Israel and his announcement that he’ll soon send U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region underscore his commitment to push for a Mideast breakthrough.
Appearing alongside a beaming Abbas, Bush drew a line between the $50 million and his hopes that Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer will propel the peace process forward — and grant Bush the foreign policy success he longs for in his second term.
“To help ensure that the Gaza disengagement is a success, the United States will provide to the Palestinian Authority $50 million to be used for new housing and infrastructure projects” in the Gaza Strip, Bush said. “These funds will be used to improve the quality of life of the Palestinians living in Gaza, where poverty and unemployment are very high.”
The amount was a surprise. Administration officials had said until about 10 minutes before the news conference that it was not clear if Bush had settled on a sum.
AIPAC declined to comment on the announcement, but was likely to take some consolation in the fact that Bush didn’t issue a blank check, and said the money would be spent on special projects subject to oversight by U.S. officials. An internal State Department document obtained by JTA suggested the money would go to water treatment plants, municipal services and new homes.
Dovish pro-Israel Jewish groups welcomed the move as a necessary boost for Abbas, a relative moderate they see as the last best chance for peace in the region.
“It’s a good sign that the president is willing to work with Abbas and bring the parties together,” said Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum and one of over 60 Jewish leaders who met with Abbas on Thursday before his audience with Bush.
Bush circumvented the restrictions on this year’s cash by dipping into last year’s allocations. Those funds also were subject to restrictions, but AIPAC’s friends in Congress suggested they were willing to look the other way to give Abbas a boost.
“President Bush has given President Abbas what he asked for; now Abbas must show that he can deliver for the Palestinian people and for everyone who has worked so hard to achieve peace,” said U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ powerful Appropriations Committee.
Israel did not go unscathed in Bush’s remarks.
“Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion,” he said. “The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of its security effort must be a security, rather than political, barrier, and its route should take into account, consistent with security needs, its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities.”
The U.S.-Israel gap on settlement building was not new, but the warning on the barrier was Bush’s first negative reference since last summer, when Israel’s Supreme Court ordered parts of the fence rerouted to accommodate Palestinian needs.
Palestinian spokesmen have alleged in recent weeks that the new route is more intrusive than the last, even though it’s closer to the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Bush’s dig suggests he is listening to such complaints.
Significantly, Bush also said he would send Rice to the region just before the pullout. That means the United States is increasing its stake in the peace process.
Success in the Middle East would touch on almost all of Bush’s global strategies. Progress between Israel and the Palestinians would help bring Europe and Arab nations into Iraq, where the U.S.-led occupation remains under deadly fire. It could nudge Russia into joining efforts to isolate Iran; it could also help co-opt Muslim nations in the Far East, including Malaysia and Indonesia, that Bush wants to counter China’s increasing influence.
Bush repeated demands that Abbas crack down on terrorism, but commended him for taking steps toward ending violence.
“He’s committed,” Bush said. “That’s what he said he is going to do, and he’s now fulfilling it.”
“Fulfilling it” goes further than Israeli officials, who say they believe Abbas is sincere but misguided when he says he can neutralize Hamas and other terrorist groups by co-opting them into the political process while leaving their military infrastructure intact.
“The problem is the gap between his intentions and what’s happening on the ground,” an Israeli official, speaking anonymously, told JTA of Abbas. “Hamas is building itself as an alternative authority. They’re now involved in setting up a popular army, and time is running out on the ability to disarm Hamas.”
The $50 million and the tough talk on settlements and the barrier fell short of the Palestinians’ wish list. They wanted Bush to accelerate the process and urge Israel to allow the Palestinians to re-arm, and they wanted those commitments in a letter.
Still, the gestures might be enough for Abbas before Palestinian legislative elections, where he needs a boost against Hamas.
Palestinians said that they understood they had much to do.
“There were rockets fired; there were Tel Aviv suicide bombings at some point,” P.A. Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa said in a news conference Wednesday. “There were other things as well. So we need to take our commitments as seriously as we take the necessity of the other side to implement theirs.”
Abbas also understood that while Bush may have spoken bluntly, his words were directed at a good friend which is why Abbas reached out to Jewish leaders.
In a long and blunt but friendly exchange, Abbas said Israel was delaying coordination on the Gaza withdrawal. He also said he wants Israel to open back-channel talks on tough permanent-status issues, including Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, so they don’t stymie negotiators at a later date.
Israeli officials say Palestinians are mishandling the coordination, apparently because of internal disputes over who is control. Palestinians cancelled two recent meetings at the last minute, one on water and the other on sewage. Back-channel talks, they suggest, are out of the question until the Palestinians get the details right.
Some of the Jewish leaders said they were impressed with Abbas’ sincerity. Still, like Israeli officials, they wonder if Abbas is misleading himself when he says a cease-fire agreement with Hamas has neutralized the group.
“He was persuasive in coming across as a person whose intentions were good, who genuinely believes in negotiations as a means of meeting a political objective and as someone who wants to make progress,” said Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office. “Where I felt he left a little room for concern was his optimism on the meaning of his agreement with Hamas and the other terrorist Palestinian factions, and how meaningful that agreement was in reflecting what he called a political transformation on their part.”