President Bush urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday to begin confronting "armed gangs" thwarting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but he stopped short of telling Abbas that militant groups should be prevented from participating in upcoming legislative elections.
Speaking at a joint news conference in the sunny Rose Garden, Bush also appeared to pull back from a goal he set shortly after his reelection to create a Palestinian state by 2009. He had earlier said he would "use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States" on creating a state. But yesterday he denied setting such a goal -- "Not true" -- and added, "I can't tell you when it's going to happen."
Bush lavished praise on Abbas, who assumed the presidency after the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and has struggled to build authority in the fractious Palestinian community. Law and order has deteriorated in the Gaza Strip since Israeli forces and settlers withdrew two months ago.
Bush in a private meeting "pressed on security pretty hard," said Edward G. Abington Jr., a former State Department official who advises the Palestinian Authority. He said Bush urged Abbas to "assert your authority." Abbas replied he was doing what he could do, but he needed help on rebuilding Palestinian institutions and greater Israeli cooperation.
The president's delicate balancing act on militant groups reflected the difficulty of the administration's simultaneous effort to bolster Abbas so his Fatah party will dominate the elections while responding to Israeli concerns that the militant group known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, could win enough seats that it could demand positions in the government. Neither Bush nor Abbas, in their public comments, mentioned Hamas, though administration officials said it was covered by the president's reference to "armed gangs."
Hamas is labeled a terrorist group by the State Department. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- under pressure from the right wing of his party -- has said he will not lift roadblocks or take other measures to facilitate the legislative elections if Hamas is allowed to participate.
More broadly, the conundrum also affects U.S. efforts to promote democracy across the Middle East, where Islamist parties and groups often form the base of opposition to autocratic governments. U.S. officials have debated how to best promote greater political participation without inadvertently allowing armed groups hostile to U.S. interests to take power through democratic means.
Abbas has said a Palestinian state must have "one gun," but he has adopted a strategy of trying to co-opt militant groups, first by convincing them to not support attacks during a period of "calm." He has also banned armed demonstrations.
Abbas said yesterday that once the legislative council is elected he will propose legislation that he said takes "these slogans and make them a reality." Palestinian officials reject the idea of instituting rules now that bar politicians allied with militant groups, arguing that if a newly elected Palestinian legislature, with Hamas members, initiates the process of outlawing militias, then Hamas would have to accept it.
Abington said Bush, in his meeting with Abbas, did not raise the issue of barring Hamas from elections.
A senior administration official said the Bush administration believes that allowing armed groups to participate in elections is a "fundamental contradiction" to building a democratic state, but "we are not going to write election laws for the Palestinians." He added that Palestinians -- in meetings that included a dinner with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, provided a number of explanations, "some well-argued," for allowing participation by Hamas. For instance, they said that if groups with substantial public support are barred from running, then that will delegitimize the election.
The official spoke under the condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the administration, because he was providing context for the president's on-the-record remarks.
Bush also called on Israel to help bolster the Palestinian economy, including resolving disputes that allow for a border crossing at the Palestinian city of Rafah, connecting the West Bank with Gaza, improving the ability of Palestinians to travel on the West Bank and beginning work on a seaport. The administration official said the Rafah crossing appeared closest to resolution.
Bush reiterated his opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, which is supposed to end under a U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map. The Bush administration has taken few steps to penalize Israel for settlement construction, and Palestinians complain the pace has especially increased since Israel proposed to abandon Gaza.