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Olmert and Bush Discuss Ways to Strengthen Abbas

NY Times | June 19, 2007
HELENE COOPER

President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel tried again today to strengthen the position of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, describing him as a voice of moderation in the Middle East, in contrast to the rival Hamas party, which they condemned as an extremist group dedicated to violence.

“He is the president of all the Palestinians,” Mr. Bush said of Mr. Abbas, with Mr. Olmert by his side in the Oval Office. “He has spoken out for moderation. He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood.”

Mr. Olmert agreed, calling Mr. Abbas “perhaps the only person who was widely elected in a democratic manner by all the Palestinian people,” and that he wanted to make “every possible effort to cooperate” with him.

Seizing the chance to condemn Hamas, Mr. Olmert said he was sure that many people have been “astounded by the brutality and the cruelty and the viciousness” of Hamas fighters.

“We who live in the Middle East perhaps are somewhat less surprised,” Mr. Olmert said, “but not less outraged.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert also reiterated their vision of Israel and a Palestinian state co-existing peacefully one day, in a way that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people while guaranteeing the security of Israel.

Then the two leaders went into a private meeting, where the widening chasm between Fatah and Hamas and the advent of the Fatah-led emergency government in the West Bank were sure to be central subjects.

On Monday, the United States and the Eurupean Union announced an end to their economic and political embargoes of the Palestinian Authority, in a bid to bolster President Abbas and the new government he has established in the West Bank as a counterweight to the Hamas faction's control of Gaza.

The American decision freed up tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians that has been frozen since Hamas won legislative elections in early 2006.

The European Union also said it would resume direct aid to the Palestinians, and Mr. Olmert said Israel would release to Mr. Abbas the Palestinian tax revenues that Israel has withheld since Hamas took control of the Palestinian parliament.

In siding so firmly with Mr. Abbas, the Bush administration is steering into new territory in its dealings with the Palestinians. It has essentially thrown its support behind the dismantling of a democratically elected government. Mr. Abbas's decision to strip Hamas of its representation in the National Security Council and to form a new emergency government has already kindled a legal battle over whether he has overstepped his powers under the Palestinian constitution.

The American moves amount to a major step toward what some call a “West Bank first” strategy in which money, aid and international political recognition would be heaped on the West Bank, leaving Gaza to be ruled by Hamas, largely as its fief.

But Middle East experts said the Palestinian constitution might allow Mr. Abbas's emergency government to remain in power for only 60 days, and Hamas, which won the last legislative elections, has indicated that it will not agree to new elections on Mr. Abbas's timetable.

“We are going to support President Abbas and what he wants to do,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday in announcing the change in policy. She said the United States would work to “restructure” and unfreeze $86 million in aid that was originally set out to help Mr. Abbas build up his security forces. It was frozen because Hamas would not renounce violence, was considered a terrorist group and did not believe Israel had a right to exist.

By diplomatic standards, the American response to the upheaval in the Palestinian territories has come about at the speed of lightning. It was less than a week ago that Hamas gunmen routed rival Fatah forces in Gaza, and took control over Fatah-run outposts on the teeming strip on the Mediterranean. Mr. Abbas called it a coup, dissolved the national unity government and announced a new cabinet made up of his allies and situated in the West Bank, where Fatah remains strong.

At least for now, the United States and Europe appear in agreement that perhaps the only way to salvage some advantage from the Hamas victory in Gaza is to bolster Mr. Abbas in the West Bank, in order to provide Palestinians there and in Gaza with a preview of what life could be like with a pro-Western government in charge.

Ms. Rice, in response to a question at a news conference on Monday, said she considered Mr. Abbas's new government to be legitimate. “I think we will leave to the Palestinians issues of how they work through their own constitutional issues,” she said. “Our view, very strongly, is that what President Abbas has done is legitimate and it is responsible and we're going to support that action.”

But Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the American move to back Mr. Abbas “looks suspiciously like there's an effort afoot to reimpose single party rule on the Palestinian body politic.”

Mr. Bush informed Mr. Abbas of the policy shift during a telephone conversation on Monday. Mr. Abbas moved quickly to capitalize on the shift, telling Mr. Bush that it was time to restart Middle East peace talks with Israel, his spokesman said. That is something that Ms. Rice has been pushing but, so far, with little overt backing from Mr. Bush.

“Everyone has looked over into the abyss and seen what happens when moderates don't come together,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What we're seeing now is a second chance for everybody.”

Administration officials said Monday that Mr. Bush might use the coming five-year anniversary of his announcement of a roadmap toward a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians as an occasion to throw his weight behind a renewed push for peace talks.

Plans for a regional meeting next week between Arab and Israeli officials, along with representatives from Europe, the United Nations and the United States, were put on the shelf for now, Arab officials said. But in a telephone call with Mr. Olmert, King Abdullah II of Jordan urged Israelis and Palestinians to restart the peace process.

Officially, Bush administration officials insisted they would not write off Gaza, and Ms. Rice said the United States would give $40 million to the United Nations to finance relief projects there. “It is the position of the United States that there is one Palestinian people and there should be one Palestinian state,” she said. “We will not leave one and a half million Palestinians at the mercy of terrorist organizations.”

A “West Bank first” strategy would mean leaning on the Israeli government to dismantle settlements, ease up on travel restrictions for Palestinians moving around the West Bank, and release a substantial number of Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel, Middle East experts said. Such moves would probably require significant prodding from the Bush administration; it is unclear whether Mr. Bush, who has thus far refrained from pressuring Israel to make political concessions to Mr. Abbas, will actually do so now.

“This is as serious as it gets,” said Ziad Asali, head of the American Task Force on Palestine. “It is time to lift the siege off the Palestinian people. This is the time to open up the political and economic horizons, and wage a campaign for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people.”

The Associated Press reported that a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, accused the international community of hypocrisy, noting that Hamas had defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in 2006. “This confirms the falseness of the international community's support for democracy,” he said.

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