US Congress to curb Bush enthusiasm for Abbas

Needing all the friends he can get: Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas take part in an armed exercise in Gaza, 2 May 2007. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

WASHINGTON, Jun 26 (IPS) - US President George W. Bush threw his full support behind President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) last week, declaring the Fatah leader “the president of all the Palestinians.”

With Hamas, the Islamist political party backed by Iran and described by the US as a terrorist organization, firmly in control of Gaza, the administration is now attempting to bolster Abbas, who formed a new government in the West Bank following the Hamas takeover in Gaza.

No sooner had Bush, along with Israel and the European Union, pledged to resume the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid to the beleaguered PA, than neo-conservative commentators and some Congressmen criticised Washington’s public support of Fatah’s “moderate” Palestinian government and demanded that rigid conditions be placed on any aid sent to the Palestinian territories.

“The administration should condition aid to the Abbas government on his promoting reform,” wrote Republican Congressman Eric Cantor in an op-ed in the National Review Online. “Fatah must offer Palestinians something better than the engine of corruption and anti-Israel vitriol it has always been.”

“We have no choice but to support him. But before we give him the moon, we should insist upon reasonable benchmarks of both moderation and good governance — exactly what we failed to do in the Oslo process,” wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post.

Hidden between the lines is the belief among neo-conservatives that there is no Palestinian “partner” for peace, that Fatah isn’t the answer, and that there is no near-term solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a position that bolsters the interventionist policies that have taken root within the neoconservative camp.

“The Palestinians are a backward people, indoctrinated toward brutality. They don’t rate a sovereign state or anyone’s help until they civilise themselves,” wrote Andrew C. McCarthy of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, in the National Review Online.

“We are enabling their hatred when we provide support without insisting that the Palestinian people — not just Abbas and Fatah, but the people — convincingly foreswear revolution, terrorism, violence, ethnic-cleansing, and the goal of eliminating Israel.”

While Bush’s embrace of Abbas’ emergency government appears to signal a dramatic shift in US foreign policy, neo-conservatives need not worry about just how much U.S. money will go to prop up the troubled Palestinian leadership. Even before Hamas swept the January 2006 Palestinian elections, US aid to the PA was heavily monitored, barred, and restricted by Congress, and it does not appear that Bush’s most recent overtures will translate into significant disbursement of funds.

“The whole business of putting onerous conditions on Palestinians has created the disaster that is occurring today. Equally absurd is the idea that the neo-cons are jumping for joy over the idea that there will not be a Palestinian state,” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the dovish Israel Policy Forum (IPF).

“[Neo-conservatives’] goal is the destruction of the idea of a Palestinian state, and it’s as ridiculous and offensive as it was the first twenty or thirty years when the Arab leaders were saying Israel was an artificial construction that could just disappear,” he said.

When Abbas came to power after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, Congress imposed strict limitations on funds for the Palestinians and demanded that the administration provide detailed reports regarding every dollar spent in the Palestinian territories.

What little economic support the US does provide to the Palestinian territories is channeled through international aid organisations, such as USAID and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

“As we’ve seen in the past, Congress is more sacred than the Pope and places conditions that are far more rigorous,” said Ori Nir, communications director of Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist pro-peace group.

Israel has also withheld between 500 million and 600 million dollars from the Palestinian government since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. Under a 1994 economic pact, Israel collects income tax from Palestinians who work in Israel and customs levied from Palestinian goods that come through the borders.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that Israel would disburse 350 million dollars immediately, with the assurance from Abbas’s government that the funds will not fall into the hands of Hamas. Israel froze those transfers once Hamas came to power.

“We need to see a new situation with the Palestinians as an opportunity which will lead eventually to talks on forming a Palestinian state,” said Olmert at a press briefing following his Tuesday meeting at the White House. “We need to strengthen the financial situation in the Palestinian Authority and to create opportunities for cooperation.”

When asked if pro-Israel lobby groups were in the process of promoting legislation aimed at severely restricting the flow of aid to Abbas’s newly formed government, Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, acknowledged that, at least temporarily, there was a general climate of opportunity to support Abbas.

“We’d like to see [the PA] succeed, but we have to make sure that American taxpayer money goes to the right place, under common sense conditions — auditing, accounting transparency,” said Block. “That kind of accountability is what we would expect from anybody everywhere.”

Other critics argue that while Bush’s public support of Abbas and the “two-state solution” is a positive step that reflects the realist vision of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, but it is too little too late.

“It’s better than nothing. It’s half of a good idea,” said Rosenberg. “It would have been a great idea if they would have done it when it mattered.”

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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