Washington trying to determine Palestinian agenda

washington | It’s one of Washington’s many unwritten rules: A return call from the White House is urgent. A cold call from the White House stops clocks.

The Palestinian Authority got two unsolicited calls from President Bush and his staff in two weeks, and the message was unambiguous: Clear your schedule, you need to make progress in peace with Israel.

Reeling from a series of political crises at home and abroad, Bush needs to show results, and his best bet might be in the area that has bedeviled a string of former presidents: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to Israel’s smooth withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, there are other small signs of rapprochement in the region.

The Palestinian Authority is showing a new, albeit hesitant, willingness to confront terrorists, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is willing to discuss sensitive issues that have been shelved for months, including prisoner release.

Bush’s hand is behind much of the nudging.

In the final days of September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, on a visit to Egypt, got a surprise call inviting him to a Washington summit with Bush on Thursday, Oct. 20. Abbas aides said he was caught off guard by the invitation, not expecting movement before Palestinian legislative elections on Jan. 25.

Instead, Bush promised a busy agenda at their meeting.

“The president looks forward to discussing with President Abbas Palestinian efforts to improve governance, revive their economy, institute security reform and fight terror,” Bush’s office said in a statement. “The two leaders will also discuss a range of other bilateral and regional issues.”

Last week, Abbas’ chief of staff, Rafiq Husseini, who was in Washington to meet lower-level bureaucrats in preparation for the Oct. 20 meeting, got his own surprise call from the president.

Bush was having lunch with Karen Hughes, a longtime adviser now running U.S. public diplomacy efforts in the Islamic world, who was in meetings at the State Department. He asked a stunned Husseini, “Why don’t you drop by?”

“It’s just up Pennsylvania Avenue,” Bush joked, according to someone familiar with the conversation.

“We had a very pleasant meeting,” Husseini told a gathering of Arab Americans a few hours later at the Palestine Center think tank. Bush discussed his “commitment to the Palestinian cause in terms of establishing a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. He said he does not want a state that looks like Swiss cheese.”

That was a signal that Bush is getting ready to re-emphasize his opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, contrary to assurances that other White House officials reportedly gave to Jewish leaders in recent weeks.

Bush was hardly letting Abbas off the hook: The mention in the White House statement of the fight on terrorism was a sign that the Palestinian leader should not get too comfortable. The Bush administration, like Israel, is holding Abbas to Palestinian Authority commitments to dismantle terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Even in that area, however, there are slight differences between the American and Israeli administrations. Israel wants Hamas barred from the legislative elections, but U.S. officials are more ambivalent.

“We’ve been very clear that Hamas is a terrorist group and it has to be disbanded, both for peace and security in the Middle East and for the proper functioning of the Palestinian Authority,” Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, said in a Sept. 30 address at Princeton University.

But then she added, “There are periods of time of transition in which one has to give some space to the participants, in this case the Palestinians, to begin to come to a new national compact.”

She went on to cite the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland — although in that case the Irish Republican Army waited a decade to disarm after its political affiliate joined the process.

“And so it is absolutely the case that you cannot have armed groups ultimately participating in politics with no expectation that they’re going to disarm,” Rice said.

That underscored a crucial difference between Israel and the United States: Israel wants actual disarmament, not some vague future expectation of it.

Abbas would wait to disarm Hamas until after the elections, Husseini told Jewish leaders in Washington, because he feels he needs the political capital that a sound victory for moderates would bring. But Abbas would disarm militants affiliated with his own Fatah Party before the elections, Husseini said.

Palestinian officials say they need to show voters dividends from moderation. That view has attracted Bush’s sympathy, with the mention in the White House statement of reviving the economy.

More crucial, the Palestinians say, is easing movement inside the West Bank and between the Gaza Strip and the rest of the world. Three Palestinian negotiators made the rounds of the Capitol and the Bush administration last week with a PowerPoint presentation that emphasized little else.

Three of the presentations’ final four points had to do with movement, saying the Gaza withdrawal had delivered “minimal results.” Israel has hesitated on opening up Gaza completely, concerned that the Palestinians and the Egyptians are not preventing arms smuggling to terrorist groups that have continued to intermittently fire on Israel since the pullout.

Palestinians need more than economic dividends, Husseini told the Jewish leaders.

“There has to be some actions taken on the ground,” he said. If not, he said, “this will only weaken the moderates.”

Sharon, who postponed his own meeting with Abbas this week until after the Abbas-Bush summit, might be forthcoming, especially if the Palestinian Authority’s moves against terrorists prove to be serious.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.