WASHINGTON — President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embraced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the only legitimate Palestinian leader Tuesday, dismissing his Hamas rivals as brutal extremists.
Sitting side by side in the Oval Office, Bush and Olmert cast the bitter split in the Palestinian leadership as an opportunity to isolate extremists and encourage peace talks with Israel. But some independent experts warned that American and Israeli support for Abbas could backfire.
Bush and Olmert outlined their tactical shift less than a week after heavily armed Hamas fighters seized control of the Gaza Strip and ousted Abbas' supporters. Abbas, safely ensconced in the West Bank, the other Palestinian area, responded by dissolving the elected government and replacing Hamas officials with his own loyalists.
The split effectively left Palestinians with two power bases: a relatively moderate group headed by Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank and a far more radical group headed by Hamas in Gaza.
Bush on Tuesday portrayed Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza as part of a "broader war against extremists and radicals" in the Middle East who oppose democracy.
But analysts said that was a simplistic view, that Hamas and terrorist networks such as al Qaida have different origins and goals. Lumping them all together will make it more difficult to bring about Arab-Israeli peace, they said.
It's "a total misconception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the eyes of the majority of the protagonists," said Daniel Levy, who was an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
On Monday, the Bush administration announced that it was lifting a 15-month-old embargo and renewing aid to the Palestinian government. Israel has promised to be supportive as well, although Olmert didn't announce any new steps Tuesday.
Olmert said this week that he was willing to take major steps to support Abbas and improve West Bank conditions, as long as Abbas didn't renew ties with Hamas. On Tuesday, Olmert told Israeli journalists that he'd ask his Cabinet to release roughly $400 million in Palestinian tax receipts that Israel holds.
Both leaders referred to Abbas as "the president of all the Palestinians," underscoring their refusal to legitimize Hamas' de facto control of Gaza.
"Our hope is that President Abbas and the prime minister, Fayyad — who's a good fella — will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction," Bush said.
Olmert said he'd "make every possible effort to cooperate" with Abbas.
"We have to prepare the groundwork that will allow soon, I hope, to be able to start serious negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state," the Israeli leader said.
The violent split among Palestinians was a dramatic setback for Bush's vision of a democratic Palestinian state and for his efforts to bolster Abbas. But Bush and Olmert said they remained hopeful that Abbas could emerge from his current difficulties to be an agent for peace in the Middle East.
However, former U.S. and Israeli officials said the policy of backing Abbas and his Fatah movement over Hamas has been tried repeatedly before and has failed, as recently as last week.
While Bush called it an "exciting moment," Levy said it was anything but.
"It's not an 'exciting moment,' Mr. President. Your policy just got dragged through the mud," said Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a center-left research center.
Now, he said, "We're doubling up. And we're halving our chances of success," because Hamas is certain to respond with violence in an effort to undermine Abbas and peace negotiations with Israel.
Levy also noted that there's political danger for Abbas in the very public embrace from Bush and Olmert, which is unlikely to help him with the Palestinian public.
"Don't do the bear hug" with Abbas, he advised. "Have a disagreement with him — that he wins."
The Bush administration has moved at least three times before to bolster Abbas: when he became the Palestinian prime minister under the late Yasser Arafat in 2003, when he was first elected president in January 2005 and after Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January 2006.
In 2005, "the strategy was, we will help Mahmoud Abbas succeed. And at the end of the day, he didn't succeed," said former State Department official Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center.
While the United States and Israel could pour money into Abbas' government, "he's the same Mahmoud Abbas who was such an ineffectual leader in the past," Alterman said. "And ... the Israelis have the same wrenchingly difficult choices to make" about compromising over territory with the Palestinians.
"Hamas' incentive will be to make sure Mahmoud Abbas doesn't succeed," he added.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007