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Bush’s support for Abbas raises new skepticism

President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet in the Oval Office, July 25, 2003. (White House )

President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet in the Oval Office, July 25, 2003.

(White House )

WASHINGTON (JTA) – It took little time for the Bush administration to come up with answers to the radically changed Palestinian reality: Fund and engage with the new moderate Palestinian Authority government.Yet those answers raised questions for some of Israel’s Jewish supporters across the political spectrum – and for congressional overseers.”The situation is still far from clarified,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “There are many unknowns.”One day after P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new government, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, conferred upon it U.S. recognition and said the Bush administration would resume financial assistance at the same levels as before Hamas assumed governance in March 2006.The announcement came one day before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was scheduled to meet with President Bush in Washington. Olmert has expressed support for the new Abbas government but also has indicated some concerns about whether funds will stay under Abbas’ control. Rice said she called and congratulated the new P.A. prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who is respected in Washington for bringing transparency to Palestinian spending in two stints as finance minister.”I told him that the United States would resume full assistance to the Palestinian government and normal government-to-government contacts,” Rice said at a State Department briefing on Monday. “I told the prime minister that we want to work with his government and support his efforts to enforce the rule of law and to ensure a better life for the Palestinian people.”Until now, the United States had been engaged in a delicate balancing act with the Palestininan unity government. It had supported Abbas and his Fatah faction, but avoided any diplomatic contact with Hamas, a terrorist group that refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel when it swept the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006.Rice said she would work with Congress to “restructure” $86 million in funds that had been earmarked for forces loyal to Abbas to confront Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip.Hamas rousted those forces in a weeklong conflagration last week and now controls Gaza. Abbas and those loyal to his Fatah Party have retreated to the wealthier West Bank, where they remain in control.The resumption of assistance comes as Israel is reportedly ready to resume transferring tax and custom payments to the Palestinian Authority, totaling close to $600 million.Rice said Hamas would remain off limits for Western assistance, although she was ready to funnel $40 million to Gazans through the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.”It is the position of the United States that there is one Palestinian people, and there should be one Palestinian state,” she said. “We will not leave one and a half million Palestinians at the mercy of terrorist organizations.”Congressional appropriators said they would closely watch how the money was spent, whatever the bonafides of Abbas’s new government.”In general, backing Abbas over Hamas, is something we ought to look at, because Hamas is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran,” Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a veteran member of the foreign operations subcommittee, which oversees funding, told JTA. “We want to make sure that if we’re providing resources to the Palestinian Authority, that they are not simply used as a siphon to attack organizations.”Hoenlein expressed concern at reports that Abbas was creating alliances with members of the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades, a Fatah-aligned terrorist group responsible for a number of suicide attacks against Israel during the 2000-2004 intifada. Beyond such considerations, Hoenlein said, are whether Abbas’ good intentions match his skills. “The question is not the money going to him, it’s the accountability, to prove what he hasn’t until now, that he is able to establish control,” he said. “His troops outnumbered Hamas and they didn’t do anything, so we saw the collapse there of the whole region.”Dovish supporters of Israel were also skeptical, charging the Bush administration with a pattern of forging ahead without considering the consequences.Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Israeli governments, said the influx of money to pro-Abbas fighters may have helped precipitate the violence in Gaza.”The most dramatic thing the money did was to encourage a Hamas pre-emptive move against Fatah in Gaza,” said Levy, who is currently a fellow at the liberal Washington think tank, the New America Foundation. “Hamas saw the effort to arm up” Fatah forces and thought “we’re not going to wait on the sidelines.”A senior Democratic staffer in Congress said some of the unknowns were out of Abbas’ control. For instance, the staffer said, the Palestinian constitution seems to require that the Hamas-dominated legislature confirm the new government within 60 days.”What happens then? Does this whole thing turn into a pumpkin?” said the staffer, who asked not to be identified. Members of Congress “are going to be skeptical the administration has grasped the dynamics at hand,” he said. He noted that it was the Bush administration that pressed for early Palestinian elections in January 2006, over the objections then of Abbas and the Israeli government.Those elections brought Hamas to power. “They didn’t understand the dynamics of Palestinian elections before setting that in motion,” he said.Asked about previous disappointments, Rice said the Fayyad-led government offered new grounds for counting on a positive outcome. “If you look at this government and particularly if you look at its prime minister, you see someone who has a reputation for integrity, who has a reputation for having accountability,” she said.

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