Abbas Gets Warm, Cold Reception

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas got a warm White House reception last week, but got a colder shoulder from Congress and few top items on his Washington wish list, starting with a commitment by President Bush to move forward aggressively with the stalled Mideast “road map” peace plan.

Although he told a French wire service that he had convinced the administration not to oppose Hamas participation in upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections, administration officials were deliberately vague on the subject.

“[Abbas] got a reaffirmation of the president’s commitment to Palestinian statehood, but no indication of a new U.S. diplomatic thrust,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who currently heads the Middle East Institute. “The president didn’t respond to a number of critical issues for the Palestinians, including prisoners. And you didn’t get the sense of a U.S. commitment to a really robust Palestinian security force that could do the job.”

During a joint press availability, Bush appeared to reject timetables for Palestinian statehood. Asked about earlier promises to win statehood before the end of his term, Bush said, “Not true. I’d like to see two states. And if it happens before I get out of office, I’ll be there to witness the ceremony. And if it doesn’t, we will work hard to lay that foundation so that the process becomes irreversible.”

Instead, the president emphasized what many pro-Israel groups urged him to put at the top of his agenda for the meeting: the need for Abbas to directly confront terror groups like Hamas.

Bush referred to the need to rebuild the Palestinian economy, but offered no specifics. Palestinians took some solace from the President’s statement at a joint photo opportunity that Israel must “remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion,” and his insistence that Israel’s new security fence “must be a security barrier, rather than a political barrier.

But that was just “a restatement of a constant theme,” Walker said. “It’s important to the Palestinians, but for Abbas, probably less important than some of the things the president didn’t do, like help with prisoners, more concrete work on creating jobs. I don’t think the president was very helpful to him.”

Daniel Pipes, Middle East Forum president, predicted a more fundamental shift in U.S. policy — but not now.

“It seems like the administration’s natural conclusion is, ‘The Gaza pullout went fine, so what are you going to do for us next,'” said Pipes, a strong critic of the Gaza disengagement. “But right now, it’s just rhetoric. U.S. policymakers are distracted elsewhere. There’s no real urgency to it. But in the long term, it could be the precursor to something more.”

On the question of Hamas participation in upcoming Palestinian elections, the results were cloudy. Sean McCormack, the state Department spokesman, said that “our position hasn’t changed; the position of the Quartet [those involved in the road map] hasn’t changed with regard to the question of armed groups, terrorist organizations operating outside of the rule of law. We have been very clear in our view that Hamas is a terrorist organization; that hasn’t changed.”

But he also said that “from our perspective, it is also the case that how the Palestinian political process unfolds and evolves is a question for the Palestinian people.”

Martin Raffel, director of the Israel Task Force of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that there is “no receptivity in the Jewish community to Abbas’ view that the election is a tool to use to disarm Hamas after the vote.”

Most Jewish groups, he said, will continue urging the administration to “unambiguously enforce the demand for disarming Hamas and rejecting racist rhetoric” as the price for participating in the election.

Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum and president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, said Abbas was satisfied with the summit.

“He’s too mature to expect unrealistic outcomes,” said Cohen, who met twice with the Palestinian leader last week. “He knows what President Bush’s domestic situation is. He didn’t set himself up with false expectations.”

He said that administration officials did not chastise Abbas on the issue of Hamas as much as many expected, and that Bush reaffirmed his commitment to improving the Palestinian economy.

“And he acknowledged Abu Mazen [Abbas] as being an effective leader,” he said. “That was very important to the Palestinians.”

Last Friday, Abbas participated in a forum on the future of Jerusalem that included Jewish, Catholic and Muslim clergy organized by Cohen.

Abbas got the red carpet from administration officials, but officials on Capitol Hill were eager to show how tough they could be with the new Palestinian leader.

Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) co-authored a congressional letter urging the Palestinian leader to cut Hamas out of electoral politics in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for January. The other primary author of the letter — which Capitol Hill sources say was aggressively pushed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — was Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio).

In the letter, Menendez argued that “groups or individuals such as Hamas who espouse violence, racism, intolerance and hatred should have no right to participate in democratic elections.”

The letter was signed by a bipartisan group of House leaders that included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Absent were Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and International Relations chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) Also hammering Abbas was Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who has moved up the House leadership ladder to take on much of Blunt’s role as majority whip.

“I hope that Mr. Abbas learned today that he must keep his word to stop the murderous tyranny of the radical terrorist groups that operate freely in Israel,” Cantor said in a statement. “If Mr. Abbas wants to be taken seriously, he must immediately begin disarming the terrorists, as well as ban them and their organizations, like Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, from participating in elections.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, said after a meeting with Abbas that “I reiterated that there is no justification for Hamas’ participation in the January elections, while that terrorist organization maintains large-scale operational capabilities outside of the Palestinian Authority’s required monopoly on power, espouses the destruction of Israel as a democratic Jewish state and continues to engage in behavior that is inherently undemocratic.”