The Bush administration is telling a skeptical U.S. Congress that training moderate Palestinian troops is key to Israel’s security and hopes for peace.
Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the top U.S. security envoy to the region, made the case to Congress last week why the administration is working to enhance security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president, as he struggles with the Hamas-led Cabinet for control of the Palestinian areas.
At the same time, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Middle East subcommittee wondered whether the $59 million Dayton was spending was wise given the emerging civil war in the Palestinian areas. They also noted past difficulties of monitoring Palestinian Authority expenditures of humanitarian assistance to ensure they do not reach Hamas coffers.
Dayton’s testimony marked the first time that administration officials openly outlined security programs aimed at helping Abbas face down Hamas’ bloody challenge to his leadership.
Security assistance for forces loyal to Abbas’ Fatah Party is “truly important to advance America’s national interest to deliver security to the Palestinians and, in the process, preserve and protect the interests of the State of Israel,” Dayton said May 23 in testimony to the subcommittee. “We’re providing a security horizon that frankly has never existed before.”
Dayton outlined how his U.S. Security Coordinator office was spending the $59 million allocated by Congress earlier this year: $16 million for infrastructure improvements at crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel, which presumably help stop terrorist attacks and ease strictures on the Palestinian economy; $40 million for non-lethal equipment and training for forces loyal to Abbas; and $3 million for a program aimed at making the forces more efficient and sensitive to human rights.
None of the money directly goes to arms. However, the security assistan! ce repor tedly is part of a broader initiative that enables Egypt and Jordan to provide Abbas’ forces with weapons.
Israel is cooperating, although it is making clear it has reservations.
“We are supporting the amended Dayton plan, trying to support the security forces that are loyal to Abu Mazen,” Sallai Meridor, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said earlier this month at an Israel Project event, using Abbas’ nickname. “It is not a risk-free enterprise for Israel.”
Congress had allocated the funds reluctantly, and only after Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, had reduced her request from $85 million. That skepticism remained in place at last week’s hearing.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, wondered whether it was possible to distinguish between “moderates” and “extremists” given the popular election of Hamas in 2006 and Abbas’ governance agreement with Hamas, which is deteriorating amid intra-Palestinian fighting.
“Are there Palestinian moderates, and if there are some, how do we get more of them?” Pence asked David Welch, the top State Department envoy to the region who was testifying with Dayton.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s chairman, raised the difficulties of assisting the Palestinians while a terrorist group governed them.
“Most Palestinians had more narrow objectives in their votes, but elections have consequences no less for Palestinians than for ourselves in the United States,” he said. “A legitimate election doesn’t absolve candidates of their crimes, and there is more to democracy than a fair counting of ballots. Elected terrorists are still terrorists.”
Ackerman also wondered about the Bush administration’s ability to follow through on making the sides adhere to security agreements, noting the failure of a promising 2005 effort to secure the crossings.
“The plan is heavy on administrative details and light on political reality,” Ackerman com! plained, referring to Dayton’s explanations. “The benchmarks overwhelmingly focus on specific and often risky action items for Israel, and on fuzzy notional aspirations for the forces under the control of President Abbas. Yet again I’m afraid we have slaughtered more trees to print paper that will fill the graveyard of stillborn American security plans.”
Ackerman also worried that the Palestinians were becoming overly dependent on foreign assistance.
“Today, instead of an economy, the Palestinians have a tin cup,” he said. “Yet who do they blame? The United States, Bush, Olmert, Abu Mazen, the P.A., the Arabs, the Quartet, the weather, the New York Yankees — anyone and everyone except Hamas.”
Bush administration officials said they were stung by Ackerman’s toughness.
“We’ve been supporting the rightful president of the Palestinian Authority since his election and he has proven that he wants peace,” one official who asked not to be identified told JTA. “It’s gotten a bit more complicated” since Hamas’ election in January 2006, “but that’s our design.”
Dayton said the training was already paying off, pointing to Fatah forces’ successful defense in recent weeks of two attempted Hamas assaults — one on the Karni crossing into Israel, the other on the Rafah crossing into Egypt.
“They knew how to work in a coordinated fashion; training does pay off,” he said. “The Rafah crossing is totally under the control of the Palestinian Presidential Guard today.”
Dayton also told the lawmakers that there were signs that Hamas’ popularity was plunging.
“There have been numerous reports about the Friday prayer services that occurred across Gaza and how the Hamas-affiliated imams tried to stir up the Palestinian people against Fatah and were greeted with people who walked out of the sermons or, in a few cases, actually chased the imams out of the mosque,” he said.
Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) asked the government officials if they be! lieved A bbas was capable of overcoming the tradition of corruption endemic to the term of his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat.
Mark Ward, the U.S. Agency for International Development official administering security funds, said his agency was funneling the money through non-Hamas officials while at the same time insisting on good governance.
Defending overall U.S. spending in the region, Ward gave the example of two adjacent communities, one led by a Hamas mayor not receiving U.S. assistance and the other by a non-Hamas mayor who was getting U.S. money.
The non-Hamas mayor “is providing direct assistance to that community so that he can demonstrate to his community that he’s listening to them in setting priorities for that community, and he’s helping to deliver the priorities that that community has identified,” Ward said. “And we’re not just helping him. We’re also teaching that community something about accountability.”
Meanwhile, he said, residents of the community led by Hamas “are going to see what’s going on in the community next door that’s receiving help from the United States.” Eventually, Ward said, “we might see a different result” in Palestinian elections.