In wake of Hamas takeover in Gaza, U.S. prepares to boost support for Abbas

McClatchy NewspapersJune 15, 2007 

WASHINGTON — The United States and other major powers scrambled Friday to rush new support to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, hoping to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects after this week's seizure of the Gaza Strip by Islamist Hamas militants.

The effort to cobble together a response to Hamas' armed takeover came as Washington's Arab allies expressed alarm over the entrenchment of a violent Islamist movement in Gaza and the spread of sectarian violence across the Middle East.

The emerging international strategy, backed by Washington, Israel and Europe, is a reinvigorated effort to bolster Abbas, who favors a negotiated peace with Israel, and the West Bank, where he makes his headquarters.

Hamas, which refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel, would be left to govern the coastal Gaza Strip and its 1.3 million people.

Abbas dismissed the Palestinian government and Ismail Haniyeh, its Hamas prime minister, on Thursday, replacing him with a former finance minister who's popular in the West.

Israel signaled Friday that it is prepared to work with the new government.

But the attempt to transform a policy disaster into an opportunity is unlikely to succeed without Herculean efforts, diplomats and analysts said.

Hopes for a "two-state solution" between Israel and the Palestinians are fluttering between "dead" and "dead and buried," said Aaron David Miller, who for 20 years was a State Department Middle East specialist.

"If over the next months we are tough and smart ... maybe there's a chance we can turn 'dead and buried' into just dead," said Miller, who expressed doubt that the Bush administration will be up to that task.

International steps to support Abbas and Israeli actions to improve conditions in the West Bank must be "very dramatic," said Miller, now at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

When President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meet at the White House on Tuesday, topping the agenda will be how to handle the stark new division in the Palestinian authority.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conferred by phone with her counterparts from the European Union, Russia and the United Nations on Friday.

After Hamas won Palestinian elections in January 2006, the Bush administration pushed for a boycott of the new government — a policy that critics say backfired and undercut moderates.

That boycott could be lifted now that Abbas has dismissed the government.

State Department Sean McCormack said Friday the administration is likely to increase aid to Abbas and is seeking Congress' approval for $27 million more to train his security forces.

"We're going to take a look, given the changed circumstance with the new Palestinian government, at what we might do," he said.

U.S. and Israeli officials said they also would consider continued international humanitarian aid to Gaza, which is almost entirely dependent on the outside world for food and power, but would otherwise leave Hamas to govern.

But the idea of cordoning off Gaza and its residents has raised concerns in the Arab world.

"I'm not sure that is a viable option," Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, said in an interview. "If Gaza is not part of the peace process, it will lead to extremism."

Hamas' Gaza takeover has sparked deep trepidation among Washington's secular Arab allies. Many see it as part of an alarming trend of violent instability, often with Islamist or sectarian overtones, sweeping the region.

This week alone, unknown assailants attacked a revered Shiite mosque in Iraq, a parliament member was assassinated in Lebanon, and Hamas expelled Abbas' largely secular Fatah movement from the Gaza Strip.

"It's never been this bad, with so many different issues at the same time — all of which are turning violent," Fahmy said. "It's a situation of extreme concern to us."

Another senior Arab diplomat said Gaza under Hamas could give radical Islam a new foothold in the violence-plagued region "if it has oxygen like money and weapons."

But the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity, noted that the enclave is bounded by the sea on one side, and by Israel and Egypt on land, making it possible to cut Hamas off from funding and weapons supplies.

There has been concern that al Qaida, which has had little presence in the Palestinian areas, could exploit the situation in Gaza. But Miller said that so far, Hamas and Israel have tacitly cooperated to stop that happening.

(Jonathan S. Landay contributed.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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