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Takeover by Hamas Illustrates Failure of Bush's Mideast Vision

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

Five years ago this month, President Bush stood in the Rose Garden and laid out a vision for the Middle East that included Israel and a state called Palestine living together in peace. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," the president declared.

The takeover this week of the Gaza Strip by the Hamas militant group dedicated to the elimination of Israel demonstrates how much that vision has failed to materialize, in part because of actions taken by the administration. The United States championed Israel's departure from the Gaza Strip as a first step toward peace and then pressed both Israelis and Palestinians to schedule legislative elections, which Hamas unexpectedly won. Now Hamas is the unchallenged power in Gaza.

After his reelection in 2004, Bush said he would use his "political capital" to help create a Palestinian state by the end of his second term. In his final 18 months as president, he faces the prospect of a shattered Palestinian Authority, a radical Islamic state on Israel's border and increasingly dwindling options to turn the tide against Hamas and create a functioning Palestinian state.

"The two-state vision is dead. It really is," said Edward G. Abington Jr., a former State Department official who was once an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, whose bouts of vacillation have irritated U.S. officials, yesterday dissolved the Palestinian government in response to Hamas's takeover of Gaza. U.S. officials signaled that they will move quickly to persuade an international peace monitoring group -- known as the Quartet -- to lift aid restrictions on the Palestinian government, allowing direct aid to flow to the West Bank-based emergency government that Abbas will lead.

"There is no more Hamas-led government. It is gone," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the administration must still consult with other members of the Quartet. He said that humanitarian aid will continue to Gaza, but that the dissolution of the Palestinian government is a singular moment that will allow the United States and its allies to create a "new model of engagement."

The evolving U.S. strategy would let the Hamas-run Gaza Strip fend for itself while attempting to bolster Abbas as a moderate leader who can actually govern and deliver peace with Israel. The senior administration official noted that Gaza has no territorial issues with Israel, since there are no Israelis in Gaza, so the Hamas entity there would have no stake in potential peace talks concerning the border on the West Bank.

Referring to Abbas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters yesterday that "we fully support him in his decision to try and end this crisis for the Palestinian people and to give them an opportunity to return to peace and a better future."

But analysts said yesterday that this strategy of dividing the moderates from the extremists -- which was the core of Bush's 2002 speech -- proved ineffective and may have led to the dilemma facing the administration.

"The less we try to intervene and shape Palestinian politics, the better off we will be," said Robert Malley, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the International Crisis Group. "Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged."

Bush made his speech at the height of a bloody Palestinian uprising, after concluding that then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was too tied to terrorism to make peace. Bush ordered U.S. diplomats to never again meet with Arafat.

Under international pressure, Arafat agreed to name Abbas as a newly empowered prime minister in 2003. But Abbas quit within months, saying he never got enough support from the United States or Israel to be effective.

When Arafat died at the end of 2004, Abbas won the elections to replace him as president of the Palestinian Authority. Despite deep Israeli misgivings, the United States encouraged Abbas to hold Palestinian legislative elections -- and Abbas invited Hamas to participate, believing he could beat them at the polls. But Hamas won, giving Hamas control of the cabinet and of the powerful prime minister's post that had been created at the behest of the United States.

Then, Washington organized a financial boycott of the government, in an effort to showcase Abbas as a moderate alternative in his role as president. But the financial squeeze engendered Palestinian ill will toward the West, not Hamas, and Abbas earlier this year agreed to a unity government with his opponents. The United States had just begun delivering nonlethal aid and training to security forces loyal to Abbas when Hamas decided to strike and seize Gaza.

"The people who are moderate are not effective," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And the people who are effective are not moderate."

Rice has been to Jerusalem four times since December, seeking to rekindle peace talks and to help the Palestinians and Israelis discuss what she called the "political horizon" -- the contours of a Palestinian state. But the discussions never progressed far, largely because of the political weakness of Abbas and his Israeli counterpart.

Before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Bush and his aides had debated whether the president should make a speech marking the fifth anniversary of his Middle East address, on June 24, in part to rebut criticism that his administration has accomplished little to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Aides say now that those plans are up in the air. It is not clear what the president would say.

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