Renewed talk of final deal with Abbas raises old concern: How to get there

washington | It’s an old conundrum, made urgent by a sudden convergence of interests of the Bush, Olmert and Abbas administrations.

The desired destination — a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians — is something almost everyone can look forward to. It’s getting there that’s the hard part.

Jewish leaders and congressional overseers across the political spectrum were skeptical of the latest acceleration toward final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians, precipitated by last week’s takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, the terrorist group.

“I don’t think anyone can force Israel to go into final status unless we see some courage from Abu Mazen,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, using the popular name for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Seated in the Oval Office with President Bush smiling approvingly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert committed Tuesday, June 19 to taking steps toward negotiating a final-status arrangement with Abbas.

Olmert said he and Bush would “talk about the groundwork that needs to be done in order to allow us rapidly to talk about the creation of a Palestinian state.”

It’s a dramatic shift for Olmert who, until now, has spoken of final-status issues in the abstract, but has focused on immediate concerns in his dealings with Abbas: easing conditions for Palestinians and getting Abbas to crack down on terrorism.

That changed last week after Hamas routed forces loyal to Abbas, a relative moderate, from the Gaza Strip.

That prompted Abbas to fire the Hamas-led government and to name a new Cabinet led by Salam Fayyad as prime minister. Fayyad is trusted in the West for the transparency he has brought to his two earlier stints as finance minister.

Cutting off Hamas paved the way for Abbas’ full embrace by the West, Bush said, placing it in the broader context of his administration’s backing for moderates in the region.

“I’m looking forward to sharing with the prime minister the results of a phone call I had yesterday with President Abbas,” Bush said. “He is the president of all the Palestinians. He has spoken out for moderation. He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood.”

Accelerating the long-stalled peace process is not expedient just for Bush, who has barely 18 months to show results from a Middle East policy whose centerpiece is the chaos in Iraq.

Olmert, too, is bottoming out in the polls in the aftermath of a botched war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer and several scandals swirling around his administration. He needs a reason to keep the Labor Party in the coalition, which is led by his Kadima Party. And Abbas needs to rally Palestinians behind him after his humiliating defeat in Gaza.

Israel is considering releasing close to $600 million it owes to the Palestinian Authority now that Abbas has unhooked himself from Hamas. Olmert said after his meeting with Bush that he would make a decision on the money in the next few days. Some of it, he said, would go to paying Israeli utility companies that provide basic needs to Palestinian areas.

The January 2006 election of Hamas, a terrorist group that rejects Israel’s existence, led much of the world to isolate the Palestinian Authority. That isolation ended this week with pledges of support from the United States and the European Union.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that she would work with Congress to “restructure” $86 million in funds that had been earmarked for forces loyal to Abbas, to confront Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip. Rice said Hamas would remain off-limits for Western assistance, although she was ready to funnel $40 million to Gazans through the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, is likely to closely monitor such assistance, predicating it on Abbas’ continued rejection of Hamas and terrorism as well as on reforms he introduces to a government that has until now been plagued by corruption.

Olmert later said he wanted to see “administrative changes” in the Palestinian government before launching into final-status talks, referring to questions about Abbas’ ability to assert control in the West Bank and control Hamas.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Bush, Olmert said he was ready to make immediate quality of life changes for the Palestinians, most having to do with easing their movement between towns in the West Bank.

The Israeli prime minister made it clear that he did not want Jewish groups or Congress to block funds for the Palestinians, which he said were necessary for Abbas to make reforms.

Congressional appropriators said they would closely watch how the money was spent.

“In general, backing Abbas over Hamas is something we ought to look at, because Hamas is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a veteran member of the Foreign Operations subcommittee, which oversees funding. “We want to make sure that if we’re providing resources to the Palestinian Authority, that they are not simply used as a siphon to attack organizations.”

Kirk was especially concerned about money routed to the Gaza Strip through the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, an organization he alleges has allowed money to reach terrorists. UNRWA denies the charges.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, expressed concern at reports that Abbas was creating alliances with members of the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades, a Fatah-aligned terrorist group responsible for a number of suicide attacks against Israel during the 2000-2004 intifada.

Beyond such considerations, Hoenlein said, is whether Abbas’ good intentions match his skills.

“The question is not the money going to him, it’s the accountability, to prove what he hasn’t until now, that he is able to establish control,” he said. “His troops outnumbered Hamas and they didn’t do anything, so we saw the collapse there of the whole region.”

Dovish supporters of Israel were also skeptical, charging the Bush administration with a pattern of forging ahead without considering the consequences.

Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Israeli governments, said the influx of money to pro-Abbas fighters may have helped precipitate the violence in Gaza. “The most dramatic thing the money did was to encourage a Hamas pre-emptive move against Fatah in Gaza,” said Levy, a fellow at liberal Washington think tank the New America Foundation.

Ron Kampeas

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