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Israel, U.S. aim to strengthen Palestinian Authority's Abbas

JERUSALEM—A year after Islamists from the militant group Hamas won control of the Palestinian government in legislative elections, Israel and the United States are renewing efforts to strengthen secular Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

They've pledged to give Abbas more military, political and financial support, hoping to bolster him as he presses Hamas to jettison its more militant positions or face new elections in the coming months.

Hamas has argued that early elections are illegal, and it views the threat as an attempt to stage a "political coup" to end its control of the legislature and Cabinet. It's refused to abandon its opposition to Israel or to join a unity government that forces it to moderate its views, and instead has armed thousands of supporters to counter Abbas and his security services.

"The Palestinian people have to make a choice between one group of people that promises them political stagnation and violence and other people that offer a political horizon, international support and movement towards an independent Palestinian state," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

The expanding effort to strengthen Abbas comes in the wake of a new pledge from Iran to provide Hamas with more support. Last month, Iran offered to give the Hamas-led government $250 million. Israeli leaders contend that Iran is helping to smuggle weapons for Hamas into the Gaza Strip, but it hasn't made evidence of the claim public.

Abbas, whose moderate Fatah faction had dominated Palestinian politics for nearly four decades, has battled with Hamas almost since the group won an overwhelming victory last Jan. 25 in the first legislative elections since 1996.

The State Department lists Hamas as a terrorist organization. The United States, Israel and Europe cut funding to the Palestinian government after the election in hopes of isolating Hamas and forcing it either to adopt more moderate positions toward Israel or collapse.

The revamped strategy is acknowledgement that that effort has failed.

The new plan, however, is rife with risks, the biggest of which is the possibility that a stronger Fatah will be faster to escalate violence against Hamas, triggering an all-out war between them.

"That you're basically going to arm the loser of what everyone agrees was a transparent election in order to remove the legitimate winner from office I think is a disastrous strategy," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based organization that analyzes conflicts around the world.

On Friday, Israel took its biggest step yet to bolster Abbas by announcing that it had released $100 million in Palestinian tax money that had been frozen since last year's elections. Abbas will be free to use at least some of the money to strengthen his presidential guard, his personal security force, said a senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The release of the money is part of a broader international initiative that includes $86 million in new funding from the United States that's expected to help train Palestinian security services and provide them with nonlethal equipment.

Last month, Egypt reportedly transferred a shipment of 2,000 machine guns and crates of ammunition to Abbas forces in the Gaza Strip.

"They were interested in a soft coup that failed, and now I think we are transitioning to a hard coup," said Geoffrey Aronson, the director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

The push to aid Abbas comes after a volatile December filled with deadly Fatah-Hamas clashes, primarily in Gaza, that overwhelmed Abbas' efforts to negotiate a unity government that would include members of both groups.

That goal will be even more difficult now that Hamas has established a new unit within the Palestinian Authority Interior Ministry. Abbas, known affectionately as Abu Mazen, has declared the 6,000-person unit illegal, but Hamas refuses to dismantle it and has pledged to double its size.

The challenges Abbas faces were evident Friday as Mohammed Dahlan, a leading Fatah official and presidential adviser, outlined efforts to modernize the Palestinian security forces, which have been beset by internal rivalries. The security services have about 60,000 members.

Dahlan said Fatah would never allow factional fighting to degenerate into civil war, but he also said Hamas wouldn't be allowed to keep its militias or kill more Fatah loyalists.

"I don't care what Fatah says, I don't care what Abu Mazen says in this regard, if Hamas kills somebody from Fatah I'm not going to stay quiet," Dahlan said. "If Hamas kills someone from Fatah, I will confront them."

In an interview published Friday in The Jerusalem Post, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Richard Jones, seemed to suggest that Fatah-Hamas clashes might benefit Israel by exposing Hamas as a militant force that's turning its weapons on fellow Palestinians.

"Of course, Fatah hits back, but I think this is good to show Hamas for what it is—it is a terror organization, and they exercise terror against Israelis normally, but they also exercise terror against their own society," Jones is quoted as saying. "All of the sudden reducing Israeli-Palestinian violence shows the real problem here, which is terror, and I think that is good for you. So I think it is improving your security in the long run."

After the story appeared, the U.S. Embassy sought to clarify that Jones was trying to make the point that Hamas is the main source of instability in Gaza and the ambassador wasn't suggesting that Palestinian infighting was good for Israel.

The other major element of the new plan to shore up Abbas is a renewed effort to resurrect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are expected to meet next month to lay the groundwork.

While all sides are setting low expectations for the meeting, Israeli and American officials are looking to provide Abbas with a concrete proposal that he can use to boost his weakened standing among Palestinians.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat hailed the decision by Rice and the Bush administration to get more involved in solving the conflict before they leave office in two years. Other Palestinians have voiced private skepticism about the initiative, which comes at a time when all three leaders—Bush, Olmert and Abbas—are unpopular at home.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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