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Bush, Visiting Mideast, Praises Abbas, but Peace Progress Blocked

December 1, 2006
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The door to Israeli-Palestinian peace may be locked, but the Bush administration still appears keen on finding a key. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate who has struggled to keep diplomacy going amid resistance from the Hamas rivals with whom he shares power, received a double U.S. boost Thursday.

President Bush praised Abbas’ efforts to form a coalition government that might soften Hamas’ hard line, lift a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority and revive diplomacy with Israel. So did U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But neither gave much of an idea of what comes next. Abbas, for his part, seemed close to despairing of a breakthrough after he hosted Rice in the West Bank.

“For eight or nine months the Palestinian people have gone without salaries, but unfortunately we have not reached an agreement” with Hamas, he said. “In the past few days we have come to the conclusion that the doors are locked.”

Abbas has tried, and failed, to talk Hamas into renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel — conditions set by Western power-brokers for engaging the Palestinian Authority.

In the absence of agreement, Abbas could use his executive powers to fire the Hamas-led government. Analysts consider this unlikely, given fears of a civil war in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Bush may be willing to see it tried.

“He deserves support in peeling his government away from those who do not recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Bush said during a conference in neighboring Jordan.

Bush — whose foreign policy, especially in Iraq, has been undermined by Republican losses in recent midterm elections — signaled that he saw Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking as central to U.S. interests in the region.

“There is no question that if we were able to settle the Israeli-Palestinian issue it would help bring more peace to the Middle East,” Bush said. “Therefore our government is focused on helping develop the two-state solution.”

One development the administration has been quick to seize on is the Gaza Strip truce declared over the weekend by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The latter built on the sudden rapprochement by offering to release Palestinian prisoners if an Israel soldier held hostage in Gaza is freed.

“We would hope for a more comprehensive cease-fire,” Rice told reporters, referring to the West Bank, where violence continued this week.

After meeting Abbas in Jericho, she was hosted by Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem. Olmert’s office quoted Rice as telling the prime minister that the Gaza truce and his overture on a prisoner swap “could contribute toward calm and progress in peace processes in the region.”

Now the ball appears to be in Hamas’ court. Its top official, P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, denied Abbas’ statement on coalition talks being deadlocked, but did not offer signs of a breakthrough.

While no one expects Israel to make peace with the Palestinian Authority under Hamas, this week’s relative calm could be extended if a prisoner swap is pulled off.

Signaling new flexibility, Israeli sources said select Palestinian prisoners “with blood on their hands” could go free in exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip since June.

According to the sources, such an amnesty would be limited to Palestinians who played supporting roles in serious attacks or would-be terrorists who were captured before they could strike. Israel would stand firm on keeping convicted killers behind bars, the sources said.

Hamas, whose gunmen were among Shalit’s captors, have demanded that Israel free 1,400 prisoners — including terrorist leaders — as ransom. Israel initially ruled out a swap but has relented. The Israeli daily Ma’ariv, quoting Cabinet sources, said Israel expected to release a total of 500 jailed Palestinians.

But Israel and the United States also appear to be preparing for a breakdown between Abbas and Hamas.

Israel said this week that it would approve the deployment in Gaza of the Badr Brigade, a 1,000-strong security force loyal to Abbas’ Fatah faction and based in Jordan. No date was given.

Washington has said it supports bolstering Abbas loyalists. Given the buildup of Hamas militias, analysts see this as a signal that the West anticipates a possibly violent showdown between Palestinian forces that will decide how, and if, future diplomacy plays out.

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