Bush reaches out to Abbas, albeit cautiously

washington | It was an invitation without an R.S.V.P.

Come on over, President Bush told his newly elected Palestinian Authority counterpart — but let’s wait to set a date.

The decisive election Sunday, Jan. 9, of Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate favored by Israel, the United States and the international community, has been followed by a flood of “What nexts?” which are decidedly less decisive.

That leaves open crucial questions about the coming year, including the long-term viability of Abbas and his commitment to ending violence, as well as his role in assuming control in the Gaza Strip and areas of the West Bank once Israel pulls out.

Phone calls from Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came after Abbas waved an olive branch Israel’s way, saying: “We extend a hand to our neighbors. We are ready for peace, peace based on justice.”

Bush’s invitation to Abbas was dramatic, in that it was the first to a Palestinian Authority president since the Clinton administration. Bush’s policy was to isolate Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, whom it linked to terrorism.

But it was also hedged: “I look forward to talking with him at the appropriate time,” Bush said earlier this week. “I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here.”

Bush’s reluctance to set a time for a call and a date for a visit suggested that the hesitancy to openly embrace Abbas had not passed with his election.

“The United States has decided not to immediately invite him because if he comes to the United States now he’d have to go home empty-handed,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes greater U.S. engagement in the Middle East.

That’s because the administration is looking to see what first steps Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will take.

U.S. officials have said that embracing Abbas during his tenure as prime minister without requiring him to show immediate accomplishments helped scuttle his bid to wrest power away from Arafat then.

And Palestinian officials say that Abbas needs results if he is to survive as a leader.

Diana Buttu, who has negotiated with the Israelis in the past as an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, cautioned that Abbas should not be seen as Arafat’s successor as the leader of the Palestinian people, but merely as leader of the Palestinian Authority.

“He is now the person responsible for a very small percentage of the West Bank” and the Gaza Strip, she said in Washington, where she delivered a post-election analysis this week. “He is a president who is living under direct Israeli rules and conditions.”

While Abbas officially received 62 percent of the vote, she said that only 70 percent of eligible voters registered, and of those only 70 percent voted in the election. That adds up to a 50 percent turnout from the eligible population. This, suggested Buttu, is a sign that many Palestinians were going to wait and see with Abbas.

As for the U.S. role now, the White House plans to wait and see as well.

Peace Partners?

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief