U.S., Europe shore up Palestinian government after its break with Hamas

McClatchy NewspapersJune 18, 2007 

WASHINGTON — The United States and Europe showered diplomatic recognition and promises of money on the new emergency Palestinian government Monday in an urgent bid to shore up Palestinian moderates and resuscitate peace talks with Israel.

President Bush expressed support to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a 15-minute phone call, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the newly installed Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, that Washington will lift its aid embargo and resume "full assistance" to his government.

The moves, which the European Union is expected to match, are part of a high-risk strategy to bolster Fayyad and Abbas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank after militias allied with the Islamist Hamas faction seized the Gaza Strip last week.

It's unclear whether the Bush administration, Israel and Europe can move quickly enough to make a difference.

The emergency government, formed after Abbas on Friday dismissed a unity government led by Hamas, is supposed to be in power for 60 days at most. Its writ doesn't extend to Hamas-controlled Gaza, where there are growing fears about food, fuel and living conditions for 1.5 million residents.

Bush will host Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House on Tuesday, and the two are expected to coordinate steps to help Abbas.

Olmert said over the weekend that Israel would release roughly $400 million in Palestinian tax receipts that it had held. Israeli diplomats said Olmert was ready to respond positively to Abbas but wanted to see whether he'd made a complete break with Hamas. The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity because embassy rules don't permit them to be quoted by name.

With Palestinians now under divided rule, the U.S. strategy is to support rapid economic and security improvements in the West Bank, hoping that Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza will see a non-Islamist state that recognizes Israel's right to exist as their future.

"A fundamental choice confronts the Palestinians and all people in the Middle East, more clearly now than ever," Rice said Monday.

Rice went out of her way to dispel the impression that the international community is punishing the people of Gaza, a coastal enclave almost entirely dependent on the outside world for food and fuel.

"It is the position of the United States that there is one Palestinian people, and there should be one Palestinian state," she said, announcing that the United States would contribute $40 million in aid to Gaza via the United Nations.

Ghaith al-Omari, who served as an Abbas adviser, said a U.S.-Israeli strategy of cordoning off a "Hamas-astan" in Gaza and hoping that its people would rise up against Hamas, while trying to turn the West Bank into a "paradise," was misguided.

"I think things will not be that simple . . . no Palestinian leader can sit back and watch Gaza starve," al-Omari said. Besides, he said, "I don't think the West Bank can be turned into a paradise . . . through aid alone. We need more than money."

He spoke at an event sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Rice sidestepped a question on whether the new government's legitimacy will expire in 30 days or, if Abbas extends his emergency decree, 60 days. She appeared, instead, to give the Palestinian leader a free hand on political moves.

"We will leave to the Palestinians . . . how they work through their own constitutional issues. Our view very strongly is that what President Abbas has done is legitimate and it is responsible and we're going to support that action," she said.

Bush and Rice have been criticized for pushing for Palestinian elections that resulted in a January 2006 victory for Hamas, then rejecting the result and orchestrating an international embargo against the Hamas-led government.

By ending U.S. restrictions on assistance to the Palestinian government, Rice is returning U.S. policy virtually to where it was before those elections.

She said the Bush administration would review its aid to the Palestinian government and probably would restructure an $86 million program aimed at training Palestinian security services loyal to Abbas.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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