President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday sought to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him a moderate voice and the only true leader of the Palestinian people.
Bush and Olmert, at a meeting in the Oval Office, both spoke positively of new meetings between Abbas and the Israelis.
“I’m going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him,” the prime minister said. Bush called Abbas “the president of all the Palestinians” and “a voice for moderation.”
Bush and Olmert met in the aftermath of Palestinian turmoil that left Abbas, a Western-backed moderate, in control of one Palestinian government in the West Bank and his Islamist rival Hamas in control of the separate Gaza Strip.
“Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyyad — who’s a good fellow — will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction,” Bush said.
Olmert said he will be talking to Abbas but spoke of several prerequisites for progress toward peace.
They included a much more responsive Palestinian government and increased security efforts, Olmert said. The prime minister also said that he wanted to discuss threats to Israel’s future from Iran.
Bush replied that he views Iran’s statements as a “serious threat” to Israel and that “all options are on the table” to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. Bush said Iran must see that there is “a price to be paid for this kind of intransigence.”
Rice to brief lawmakers
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, was to brief members of Congress on Tuesday about the Bush administration’s decision to restart the flow of aid to Abbas’ government. She announced the move Monday, after more than a year in which the United States pledged support for Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, but withheld money for fear it would benefit Hamas radicals governing alongside him.
“It’s a day late and a $100 million short,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who chairs a House subcommittee focused on the Middle East. “If we were delivering goods to Abu Mazen and making him the Muslim Santa Claus in the Arab world so he was giving out the goodies, instead of Hamas, they wouldn’t have lost the last election. And Hamas would have withered in the desert.”
Hamas’ surprise 2006 legislative victory ended decades of rule by Abbas’ Fatah Party. Hamas won largely on the strength of the services and smooth government it delivered in its Gaza stronghold.
‘It gives Fatah walking-around money’
Hamas refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, conditions the world set for diplomatic engagement and aid. Hamas claims responsibility for the deaths of scores of Israelis in suicide attacks. Israel, the European Union and the United States list it as a terrorist group.
Abbas was elected separately and retained office through months of political impasse and upheaval. He tried a coalition government this spring, but he dissolved it last week after days of clashes in Gaza between his forces and Hamas that killed some 100 Palestinians.
As a first step, Rice said she will ask Congress to rework an existing $86 million aid request for the Abbas-led government. At the same time, she announced a separate $40 million contribution to United Nations relief for Palestinian refugees, a gesture to the 1.5 million Palestinians living in increasingly desperate conditions in Gaza.
“We are not going to countenance that somehow ... the Palestinians are divisible,” Rice told reporters. “We’re not going to abandon the Palestinians who are living in Gaza.”
The cash to Abbas’ government will help him meet his payroll and could improve his standing with Palestinian voters, but he remains weak. Although the Bush administration has made a point of saying that Abbas remains the leader for all Palestinians, the near-total division of the two Palestinian territories means he can fully speak for only about half his more than 3 million people.
Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the split between the territories is a problem U.S. money can’t fix. Abbas and Fatah have other problems, too, Alterman said, including a history of corruption and inefficiency that had made Congress wary of direct payments long before Hamas became a factor. “It gives Fatah walking-around money, but it doesn’t solve the governance problem,” Alterman said.