News Analysis: New wind in Washington blows ball

by Ron Kampeas

For Immediate Release:

February 2, 2005

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 (JTA) — It used to be that a bipartisan barrage of Beltway backing for “democracy in the Middle East” meant something comforting for Israel: another show of solid U.S. support. Now it could mean profound change.

Two congressional resolutions praising the Palestinians for their presidential elections last month, coupled with administration suggestions that substantial material support is on its way, hint at a subtle but far-reaching change in how the United States treats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The shift is in the expectations: After four years of rhetorical “what nexts?” that primarily addressed the Palestinians, the United States has put the ball in Israel’s court.

“Over the last half century, the members of this body have seldom had occasion to commend those on the Palestinian side, whose cause was hijacked by a leadership that preached death and destruction rather than reconciliation and peace,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, said Wednesday in introducing a resolution he coauthored with his majority counterpart, Rep. Roy Blunt (D-Mo.) “But today, we would be remiss if we did not” commend the Palestinians.

In her first chat with her staff as U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice made clear this week that Israel must understand that the administration believes a full-fledged peace with the Palestinians is at stake.

“Don’t think any of us doubt that without a Palestinian state that is viable, that can represent the aspirations of the Palestinian people, that there really isn’t going to be a peace for either the Palestinian people or for the Israelis,” Rice said Monday.

That line was all the more significant coming just hours before Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s top adviser, Dov Weisglass. Weisglass angered administration officials last year when he suggested that after it pulls back this year from the Gaza Strip and a small portion of the West Bank, Israel might postpone further withdrawals indefinitely unless the Palestinians make far-reaching governmental reforms and take concerted action against terrorism, as required by the “road map” peace plan.

Significantly, Rice’s inaugural tour as secretary of state will include stops next week in Israel and the Palestinian areas.

“I’m going to Israel and to the West Bank on this trip,” she said. “We’re going to be working with the parties, now that they’ve begun to make those fundamental choices, to push forward toward the date when we have a two-state solution. And I think it’s in our grasp, although it’s still something that has to be worked toward vigilantly.”

Sharon and P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas will meet in Egypt next Tuesday; it was not clear whether Rice would attend.

Israeli officials already are making some changes, discussing a second phase of withdrawals and dropping a demand dating back to Labor governments that Israel keep the strategic Jordan Valley — a sign that Sharon is ready to live with a Palestinian state that is contiguous and borders Jordan.

On the ground, Israel reopened the crossing Tuesday between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and pledged to proceed with a scaling down of forces near West Bank towns — albeit at a slower pace since Palestinians are continuing to fire rockets into Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who was in Washington last week to meet with Rice, announced the reactivation of a coordination mechanism among Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to smooth over differences and work through crises, such as the rocket attacks.

Additionally, Israel’s attorney general on Tuesday formally quashed government plans to appropriate acres of land in eastern Jerusalem, something that angered Palestinians.

The way forward is clear: Bush, getting ready for a tour of European capitals in which he hopes to repair strained relationships in order to solicit greater cooperation in Iraq, wants to show that he is capable of meeting some European foreign policy demands.

The administration wants nothing to get in the way. The State Department, which usually avoids comment on casualties until the circumstances are clear, rushed out a statement Monday on the death of a 10-year-old girl in Gaza, allegedly from Israeli gunfire.

“The death of any innocent individual, especially children, is a tragedy,” a statement said. “We urge all parties, especially at this most promising moment for progress between Palestinians and Israelis that we have seen in recent years, to remain focused on measures to bring an end to violence and terror, and to avoid actions that escalate tension and create obstacles to implementing the ‘road map’ and realizing the president’s two-state vision.”

The tone has changed enough that Shalom remarked to reporters last week that the newly elected Abbas, and his finance minister, Salam Fayyad, “have a warm corner” in Washington.

It’s warm enough that U.S. officials are being clearer than ever in promising substantive assistance to the Palestinians. William Burns, the top State Department envoy to the region, said after meeting with Abbas last week that the administration is “looking for ways in which we can help on an urgent basis economically, both in accelerating our assistance and seeking additional assistance for the Palestinians, and revive a sense of economic hope for Palestinians.”

U.S. officials won’t say on the record how much aid money is being considered, but some close to the process say the figure is around $200 million.

Burns also pledged renewed security assistance, in a deep freeze since Palestinians killed three Americans traveling with a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip in October 2003. That crime has yet to be solved.

The new tone is not limited to the administration: The leadership of both parties has signed on to resolutions circulating in the House of Representatives and the Senate praising the Palestinian elections.

The Senate resolution passed Tuesday night, sponsored by majority leader Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and minority leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), goes furthest, saying the election “establishes a credible leader in President Abbas” — a sharp departure from Israel’s “wait-and-see” rhetoric about Abbas pending serious moves against terrorism.

The House resolution, sponsored by each party’s whips, stops short of that endorsement — congratulating Abbas but not “establishing” his leadership — but suggests that the House will not be as ready as it has been in recent years to admonish the White House when differences with Israel arise. It was debated in the House Wednesday, and passage seemed assured.

If anything, Congress appears determined to push Bush’s agenda forward. Congressional staffers said the legislators who monitored the Palestinian elections — Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) — were so impressed with the smoothness of the process that they determined to persuade their colleagues to bolster Abbas, leading to the resolutions.

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“An almost reverential quiet enveloped the polling places,” Capps said Wednesday in debate. “It was truly moving to see Palestinian people — young and old — embracing this democratic exercise with such purpose and resolve.”