Strategy for Propping Up Abbas

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed yesterday on a strategy to prop up the embattled Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas with financial aid, eased travel restrictions, moral support and peace talks as they struggled to counter the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Appearing together at the White House just days after bloody street fighting ripped the Palestinian territories into rival camps, Bush and Olmert gave unequivocal backing to Abbas, repeatedly calling him the "president of all the Palestinians" despite the division on the ground. Olmert pledged to meet with Abbas and help "suffering Palestinians" through the crisis.

"He has spoken out for moderation," Bush said of Abbas, who dismissed the Hamas prime minister and formed an emergency government. "He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood." Bush said the joint U.S.-Israeli approach aims to build up Abbas and his more moderate Fatah party so they "will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction, with a different hope."

As part of the strategy, Olmert agreed to seek cabinet approval in principle for the release of tax money collected by Israeli authorities on behalf of the Palestinians, adding to the infusion of funds already on the way to Abbas from the United States and Europe, which lifted their embargo on direct aid, according to U.S. officials. After lunch with Bush, Olmert told Israeli reporters that he will also take "more far-reaching" steps to remove West Bank checkpoints, loosen travel restrictions and aid Abbas's security forces.

"Like you," Olmert said at Bush's side in the Oval Office, "I want to strengthen the moderates and cooperate with President Abu Mazen," as Abbas is commonly known. "I am going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him and to move forward." But Olmert emphasized that "a prerequisite for any major development in the future" would be a more serious effort by Abbas to "fight terror in a most effective way."

And Bush rejected suggestions by Syria that he participate in talks between Jerusalem and Damascus aimed at settling regional tensions. "If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria," Bush said, "he doesn't need me to mediate."

The Bush-Olmert meeting came at a time of profound political weakness for both men, complicating their efforts to address the reversals in Gaza. The White House session was originally scheduled before the Hamas uprising so that Bush could offer support for Olmert, who remains deeply unpopular in Israel after the war in Lebanon last summer. But events on the ground turned yesterday's get-together into a crisis summit.

"It's a disaster," said Rachel Bronson, a Middle East scholar at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "To have an Afghanistan right in the heart of the Middle East is a frightening prospect for all of us. And a lot of the things they're talking about is too little, too late."

Jon B. Alterman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the moves envisioned by Bush and Olmert could stabilize Abbas but would be a temporary boost. Absent a dramatic development, he said, it may be two or three years before the Palestinian territories reunite. "The early stuff is easy," he said. "Opening the taps of U.S. and other international aid, giving Fatah some walking-around money, improving the lives of Palestinians, especially government workers, in the near term is easy. The harder part is ensuring that Fatah succeeds in the West Bank over the long term."

Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement and deemed a terrorist group by the United States, Israel and Europe, has already seized on the U.S.-Israeli moves as further evidence of Fatah's collusion with the enemies.

"The decision to lift the financial and political embargo on the Palestinian Authority is part of a conspiracy against Hamas and the Palestinian people," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, according to the Jerusalem Post. Abu Zuhri accused the West of hypocrisy in its support for democracy, citing the Hamas victory in parliamentary elections last year. "They are refusing to accept the results of a free and democratic election that brought Hamas to power," he said.

After dismissing the Hamas government, Abbas appointed economist Salam Fayyad as prime minister of an emergency administration based in the West Bank, where Fatah remains in control. But it is still unclear whether he will call for new elections. White House officials said yesterday that they are unsure whether they will encourage him to do so given the risk that Hamas could win again.

The White House rejected criticism that Bush did too little to support Abbas in the past, paving the way for the Hamas seizure of Gaza. "The president of the United States did not bind people's hands behind their back and throw them from rooftops," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. "The president of the United States did not masquerade around with masks pulled over the face and slay people who disagreed with Hamas."

While expressing similar outrage, Olmert saw an opening in the crisis to make progress toward a Palestinian state. Israeli reporters even told him that he seemed optimistic. "I didn't say I'm an optimist," Olmert replied, according to an Israeli official reading from notes on the session. "There's a difference between identifying an opportunity and being an optimist, and, potentially, there's an opportunity here."

The two leaders also discussed Iran's nuclear program, agreeing that it poses a danger to international security. Questioned by reporters, Bush repeated his position that all options are on the table, including a military attack, but he added that he remains confident that diplomacy will resolve the impasse.

Hours later, Bush released a statement pledging to reinforce Israel's military posture with a new 10-year agreement "that will give Israel the increased assistance it requires to meet the new threats and challenges it faces." Bush said he will send Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns to Israel next month to lead talks aimed at concluding such an agreement.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company