It’s an old conundrum, made urgent by a sudden convergence of interests of the Bush, Olmert and Abbas administrations:
The desired destination, a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians, is something almost everyone can look forward to. It’s getting there that’s the hard and scary part.
Jewish leaders and congressional overseers across the political spectrum were skeptical of the latest acceleration toward final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians, precipitated by last week’s takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, the terrorist group.
“I don t think anyone can force Israel to go into final status unless we see some courage from Abu Mazen,” Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told JTA, using the popular name for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Seated in the Oval Office with President Bush smiling approvingly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert committed on Tuesday to taking steps toward negotiating a final-status arrangement with Abbas.
Olmert said he and Bush would “talk about the groundwork that needs to be done in order to allow us rapidly to talk about the creation of a Palestinian state.”
It’s a dramatic shift for Olmert who, until now, has spoken of final-status issues in the abstract, but has focused on immediate concerns in his dealings with Abbas: easing conditions for Palestinians and getting Abbas to crack down on terrorism.
That changed last week after Hamas forces routed forces loyal to Abbas, a relative moderate, from the Gaza Strip.
That prompted Abbas to fire the Hamas-led government and to name a new Cabinet led by Salam Fayyad as prime minister. Fayyad is trusted in the West for the transparency he has brought to his two earlier stints as finance minister.
Cutting off Hamas paved the way for Abbas’ full embrace by the West, Bush said, placing it in the broader context of his administration’s backing! for mod erates in the region.
“I’m looking forward to sharing with the prime minister the results of a phone call I had yesterday with President Abbas,” Bush said in the Oval Office, surrounded by the symbols of American democracy: paintings of Washington and Lincoln and texts chronicling the Civil War. “He is the president of all the Palestinians. He has spoken out for moderation. He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood.”
Accelerating the long-stalled peace process is not expedient just for Bush, who has barely 18 months to show results from a Middle East policy whose centerpiece is the chaos in Iraq.
Olmert, too, is bottoming out in the polls in the aftermath of a botched war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer and several scandals swirling around his administration. He needs a reason to keep the Labor Party in the coalition, which is led by his Kadima Party. And Abbas needs to rally Palestinians behind him after his humiliating defeat in Gaza.
Some Jewish observers wondered whether the parties fully understood what they were getting into.
“The president went overboard in his praise of Abu Mazen,” Foxman said, citing the Palestinian leader’s failure until now to crack down on Hamas or end rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel. “He hasn’t done one thing since day one to prove he’s taking action to match his words.”
Still, Foxman said: “I don t think Israel has a choice but to invest in him.”
Israel is considering releasing close to $600 million it owes to the Palestinian Authority now that Abbas has unhooked himself from Hamas. Olmert said after his meeting with Bush that he would make a decision on the money in the next few days. Some of it, he said, would go to paying Israeli utility companies that provide basic needs to Palestinian areas.
The January 2006 election of Hamas, a terrorist group that rejects Israel’s existence, led much of the world to isolate the Pa! lestinia n Authority. That isolation ended this week with pledges of support from the United States and the European Union.
Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, said Monday that 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. 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.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, is likely to closely monitor such assistance, predicating it on Abbas’ continued rejection of Hamas and terrorism as well as on reforms he introduces to a government that has until now been plagued by corruption.
Olmert later said he wanted to see “administrative changes” in the Palestinian government before launching into final-status talks, referring to questions about Abbas’ ability to assert control in the West Bank and control Hamas.
Speaking to reporters after meeting Bush, Olmert said he was ready to make immediate quality of life changes for the Palestinians, most having to do with easing their movement between towns in the West Bank.
The Israeli prime minister made it clear that he did not want Jewish groups or Congress to block funds for the Palestinians, which he said were necessary for Abbas to make reforms.
“The Palestinian government must get an opportunity for aid, and we must act to let it fulfill its mission of stability in Judea and Samaria,” Olmert said, using the the biblical names for the West Bank, “and give services and reinforce its authority.”
“It’s reasonable that those partnering with us will do the same thing,” and assist Abbas in asserting control, the prime minister said. Fayyad, Olmert said, was not about to transfer funds to Hamas.
Olmert was scheduled to meet later Tuesday with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader. He met with Jewish leaders on Sunday and Monday.
Congressional appropriators said they would closely watch how the money was spent, whatever the bonafides of Abbas’s new government.