President Bush wants to boost the political fortunes of Mahmoud Abbas while also pushing the Palestinians’ first democratically elected leader to tackle the tough job of dismantling Palestinian militant groups.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Bush, who was meeting with Abbas on Thursday at the White House for the first time since the Palestinian Authority president’s election in January.
Ahead of the meeting, a Bush administration official and congressional aides said the authority could receive more direct aid from the United States. One aide said Bush was expected to announce that tens of millions of dollars would go to the authority, a move that could anger some members of Congress who still worry about corruption in Palestinian ranks. The aide and the others spoke on condition of anonymity because a decision was not complete.
Abbas is seen by the White House as a Palestinian leader it can work with, unlike the late Yasser Arafat, with whom Bush refused to meet. But Abbas comes to the White House in need of help, as his ruling Fatah party faces a threat in upcoming parliamentary elections from the militant group Hamas, which posted a strong showing in recent local elections.
A report out of the West Bank on Wednesday, citing two officials close to Abbas, said the Palestinian leader wants to delay the July elections until November in hopes of recapturing some of the popular support Fatah has lost.
Abbas told reporters in Washington that there had been no change in the election schedule, but added that ”the Palestinian parliament is studying a new election law and we will see what happens.”
Israel, meanwhile, has refused to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians until completing its plan to withdraw settlements this summer from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank — and until Abbas does more to rein in terrorist groups that attack Israel. Abbas has tended to choose compromise with militants over confrontation.
Amid those developments, Bush has embarked on a fresh drive to invigorate the search for peace in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Last month, Bush brought Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, to his Texas ranch.
”President Abbas was elected as part of the democratic wave that is sweeping the Middle East,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday. ”This is a hopeful moment in the Middle East.”
Abbas was hoping Bush would reaffirm his commitment to the internationally backed road map peace plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and creating a Palestinian state. Abbas has been concerned that U.S. support for Israel’s unilateral plan to withdraw from Gaza has diverted attention from the road map.
”We are committed to democracy. We believe that negotiations are the path to peace. We are committed to the two-state vision: a Palestinian state and an Israeli state,” Abbas told reporters Wednesday night after meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The White House focus for the Bush-Abbas talks was Sharon’s settlement withdrawal plan. The U.S. hopes the pullout will jump-start the peace process, and is trying to work with both sides to make sure it goes smoothly, during and after.
Palestinians, however, are skeptical, fearing Sharon’s plan will give him cover to hold on to other major West Bank settlements in any final peace deal.
So Abbas, also meeting with other administration officials and lawmakers during a three-day Washington visit, was bringing an agenda of his own into the Oval Office.
He wants the United States to pressure Israel to return to the negotiating table and a promise that Washington will not prejudge the final borders of a future Palestinian state. During Sharon’s meeting with Bush, the Israeli leader won a key assurance from Bush, that it would be unrealistic to expect a pullback to the borders before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.
Abbas hopes to strengthen his argument by showing Bush maps of Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He also plans to tout the governmental reforms he has made and the truce — albeit informal and shaky — he secured between militant groups and Israel.
On Wednesday, Abbas questioned lawmakers on their reluctance to provide assistance he says his government needs to revive an ailing economy and rehabilitate his security forces.
”We asked for direct aid. We have a budget, we have a finance ministry, we have laws, we have everything. There is no excuse for this money to come through non-governmental organizations,” Abbas said.
With direct assistance to the authority allowed only through a presidential waiver of existing law, the vast majority of U.S. aid to the Palestinians has been channeled through the United Nations and private relief organizations. Over the past two years, just $40 million has been given directly to the authority.
Congress has approved $275 million in Palestinian aid for this year and is considering Bush’s request for an additional $150 million for next year. The new direct aid would be a part of that package.
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