U.S. won't demand PA disarm militants until after elections
The Bush administration will not be demanding that the Palestinian Authority disarm the armed groups in the territories, including Hamas, at least until after the Palestinian elections later this year. President George W. Bush may even try to bypass Congress and announce tens of millions of dollars in direct aid to the Authority during PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' meeting with Bush today.
According to sources in Abbas' entourage, an understanding has been reached that the U.S. will make do with a Palestinian commitment to take action against arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
For months, Israel has been saying that there can be no diplomatic progress until the Palestinians "dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," and has been trying to persuade the U.S. administration that Abbas is weak. However, American officials have made it clear to Israel that the administration is sticking to its support for Abbas even though it is concerned about his apparent weakness.
The Americans have made clear to Israel that it must fulfill its commitments made at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit - continuing to hand over West Bank towns to the PA, releasing security prisoners and removing checkpoints that restrict Palestinian freedom of movement in the territories.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is said to be planning to bring a package of confidence building measures for approval in the cabinet next Sunday, including the release of 400 more of the 900 prisoners he promised to let go at Sharm.
According to the Palestinian sources, the Americans have accepted the Palestinian approach to strengthening the "tahadiye," the "lull" in armed struggle as announced in Cairo by 13 Palestinian factions, including Hamas. This approach is based on ongoing dialogue between the PA and Hamas and the other armed organizations.
The administration, the sources also said, has accepted the approach taken by Abbas and Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef to prevent the public display of weapons by the armed groups and collect weapons from those men who appear on a list of wanted terrorists on a list agreed upon by Israel and the PA. The wanted men are then enlisted into the PA security apparatus.
Abbas arrived in Washington yesterday morning for his first visit since he was elected to replace Yasser Arafat in early February. He dined last night with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with Sharon advisers Dov Weissglas and Shalom Turjiman and Ambassador Danny Ayalon yesterday for 90 minutes.
Abbas was also slated to hold meetings with Congressmen and to meet with Vice President Richard Cheney last night, and with American Jewish leaders known to favor the peace process, today at his hotel, before going to the White House. It will not be his first visit to the White House - he was there as prime minister under Yasser Arafat - but it will be his first visit there since becoming chairman.
Bush refused to meet with Arafat, saying he was untrustworthy in light of the discovery of the Karin A arms smuggling ship commissioned by Arafat, just before Bush was first inaugurated as president in January 2001.
Congress attached strings to the $200 million in aid to the Palestinians which was announced by Bush when Abbas was elected, preventing it from going directly to the PA on the grounds that the Authority is corrupt. The funds were earmarked for nongovernmental organizations operating in the territories, and $50 million of the money was designated for Israel to spend on new security terminals between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.
Abbas and Fayad will try to persuade Congress that the PA's finances are now transparent. They are being monitored by an international accounting firm paid out of the U.S. aid
Bush has access to discretionary funds that he can use to provide aid directly, and even if it is a small amount, it will have symbolic importance for Abbas since he will be able to use it to pay salaries or fund projects that he'll be able to point to as gains.
Bush is also expected to praise Abbas' reform efforts, both in the security and civilian realms, but the prevailing view among both Palestinian and Israeli officials is that the president will not give Abbas written guarantees of American support on issues of importance as Sharon received.
On arrival, Abbas said, "We expect a clear political stance from the U.S. on the implementation of the road map and economic support, and we hope to get it."
Abbas is slated to raise the issue of settlement expansion and Israeli land expropriations for the separation fence, particularly in the Jerusalem area and to present maps showing the details of Israeli control.
"He'll get public embraces, and the Americans will reiterate all their previous statements that favor the Palestinians," an Israeli official said last night, mentioning a declaration about the link between disengagement and the road amp, a promise for Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West bank, and maybe a mention about "the need to end the occupation that began in 1967."
The Israeli message to the Americans as delivered by Weissglas, Turjiman and Ayalon in their meeting with Rice, is that Abbas is weak and unable to act against the terrorist organizations, which have turned into a "parallel authority" in the territories.
Rice made clear at the meeting that the U.S. would stick to its support for Abbas, asked Israel to continue humanitarian gestures toward the Palestinians and emphasized the need for the two sides to coordinate the disengagement and for Israel to fulfill its commitments made at Sharm el Sheikh.
Weissglas said that the hand-over of the towns is being delayed because the Palestinians are not fulfilling their side of the deal regarding the wanted men and said that the Palestinians are dragging their feet over coordination of the disengagement.