The subtle campaign to bolster Abbas
Bush tries to solidify Palestinian leader's position without making it look like he's tool of Washington.
The White House is increasing its efforts to try to help a person it considers indispensable to Middle East peace: Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Of necessity it's a subtle campaign, as Mr. Abbas would lose support at home if he's judged to be too too close to Washington.
But neither can the US simply leave Abbas to proceed on his own. Having pressured Palestinians to replace Yasser Arafat with someone deemed more moderate, US officials feel some responsibility to help Abbas solidify his position.
Thus National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice passed along an invitation to visit the White House when she met Abbas in the region last week. More tangible inducements - meaning increased aid, possibly handed directly to the Palestinian Authority - are also under US discussion.
"He is our man, and Washington has got to support him as visibly as possible," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
That is just what Secretary of State Colin Powell and other US officials have trying to do in recent days - boost the fortunes of someone they consider critical at a key moment in the peace process.
Monday Secretary Powell appeared on five different television morning shows, and on each he took time to give at least one Abbas plug.
In the wake of the Israeli pullout from Gaza "we hope that ... the Palestinian people will realize that Prime Minister Abbas is producing for them and thereby they will empower him even further," said Secretary Powell.
"Producing" is a key word in this context. Washington fervently hopes that ordinary Palestinians will become convinced that there are real gains to be made in a peaceful environment, both in terms of improvement of their daily lives and progress toward a Palestinian state.
Toward that end, US officials are considering ways of directing more cash into the battered Palestinian economy. One possibility: delivering an extra $300 million for help in boosting Palestinian Authority security forces.
Such aid would perhaps fulfill the dual purpose of putting some cash in Palestinian pockets while providing Abbas more military strength to counter Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups responsible for attacks on Israelis.
Currently all US aid to the Palestinian Authority is filtered through the United Nations or other third parties. Sending the checks directly to the Palestinians - another change under consideration - might further bolster Abbas, some officials feel.
It would make clear that the US is looking toward the day when Palestinians have the government of a state, instead of something named "authority."
"We may, as a world community, be able to watch the birth of a new nation," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Monday.
Money for Abbas also might help undercut Hamas by rendering the many social services the group provides less important. Providing significant help now would help Abbas "demonstrate to the people that they don't need Hamas, that they have to go to him in order to get the road, the water, the sewer, the hospital," said Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a recent broadcast interview.
To American eyes Mahmoud Abbas is important because he seems the only Palestinian leader who can walk the narrow line of maintaining some legitimacy while simultaneously negotiating with Israel for peace.
Much of the administration's strategy toward the peace process is based on this presumption: that Arafat is irredeemable, and new leadership was needed at the top.
Powell "sings [Abbas] up because we really need him as a replacement for Arafat," says Rachel Bronson, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet the true test of Abbas lies ahead, says Ms. Bronson. Inevitably, Hamas and other groups will violate the cease-fire in small ways - with isolated attacks, say, that are intended to test how Israelis will react.
The radical groups have a much different purpose in mind than Abbas in agreeing to the cease-fire, Bronson points out.
Abbas is hoping that peace will cause the Israelis to pull out of occupied territories. Hamas hopes that Israel will overreact to the inevitable violations - delegitimizing negotiations once and for all.
Hamas and other groups "are basically waiting for the Israelis to fail," says Bronson.
As of time of writing the shaky cease-fire seemed to be taking hold, however.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a public show of reconciliation before a meeting in Sharon's office.
We are facing a new opportunity today, a better future for both peoples," said Sharon.
Abbas said it was time for both sides to put the past behind them, and cooperate to end violence in which too many people have lost their lives.
"Every life sacrificed is a human tragedy," said Abbas.
The two leaders reiterated their support for the US-backed "road map" peace plan, and discussed resurrecting committees to deal with security, finance, and prisoners that were first established in the 1990s.