JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israel and the United States are moving to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against his Hamas rivals.
With intense international scrutiny on the West Bank, effectively the Palestinian Authority president’s remaining mandate, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Abbas on Monday to present him with a double amnesty designed to beef up Fatah forces, or at least prestige. Hours later, President Bush announced a major new initiative aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state.
The moves come a month after Hamas violently ousted Abbas’ more moderate Fatah faction from the Gaza Strip and are being seen as part of a wider effort to bolster the standing of America and its moderate Arab allies in the region.
Speaking Monday at the White House, Bush said his plan including funding and diplomatic components.
A funding initiative would include $190 million in direct U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority, $228 million in loans and $80 million to beef up Palestinian security forces being trained by U.S. Gen. Keith Dayton.
The diplomatic effort would include a major regional conference this autumn in the Middle East to be chaired by the United States. Bush called on Arab states to end their refusal to recognize Israel ahead of the conference.
Trying to build Palestinian institutions, the president called on Israel to remove settlement outposts in the West Bank, cease settlement expansion and continue transferring Palestinian tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority.
Bush also said the Palestinians should take steps to bolster Israel’s security.
“The Palestinian government must arrest terrorists, dismantle their infrastructure and confiscate illegal weapons,” he said.
Prior to Bush’s speech, Olmert delivered a list of 250 Palestinians, mostly from Fatah, who will receive early releases from Israeli jails. He and Abbas further agreed that Israeli security forces would no longer pursue 178 West Bank gunmen from Fatah after they foreswore terrorism.
Many of the former fugitives are expected to enroll in security forces loyal to Abbas, which themselves may soon be reinforced by a Fatah contingent based in Jordan and known as the Badr Brigade.
As far as Jerusalem and Washington are concerned, Abbas will then be equipped for any showdown with Hamas over the West Bank.
“In the past Abu Mazen pandered to Hamas, not wanting to fight them,” Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told Army Radio, using Abbas’ popular name. “Now he has nothing to lose and faces the ultimate test. We hope, by our actions, to enable and empower him to meet his part of the bargain.”
Olmert aides said that during the meeting with Abbas, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders discussed general ways of returning to full talks on a two-state peace accord, an agenda similar to that of other recent summits. But the Palestinians have grown increasingly vocal about the need for talks to cover more than tactical needs and include issues of building a peace strategy.
“In order to rebuild the faith of the Palestinian and Israeli publics in the peace process, we must tackle the short term and long term simultaneously,” Salam Fayyad, the Western-trained economist whom Abbas appointed prime minister in lieu of Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, told Ha’aretz.
“If Israel wants to wait until we become a world power, it looks like it will have to wait forever.”
Moderate Palestinians argue that without a serious diplomatic track to look forward to, many of their countrymen will adopt the hard-line positions of Hamas.
That rings hollow to Israelis who note Abbas’ past failure to honor his obligations, under the U.S.-led peace “road map,” to disarm Hamas and other terrorist groups. So Abbas is effectively in a major trial period as far as Israel is concerned.
“Abbas and Fatah did nothing to fight terrorism,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman said. “I look at past actions we took to strengthen Abu Mazen, and what happened? Hamas took over Gaza.
“We must find the right partner. Abu Mazen is not the right partner.”
JTA Washington correspondent Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.