Monday, February 19, 2007

For the P.A. and Mahmoud Abbas, a Bad Day on Capitol Hill

By Nathan Guttman

16 February 2007

Washington - If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas wanted to get a feel for just how upset Congress is
over his decision to form a coalition government with
Hamas, he should have caught Rep. Gary Ackerman’s opening
comments Wednesday at the meeting of the Middle East
subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ackerman, the New York Democrat who chairs the
subcommittee, had been a leading proponent on Capitol Hill
of the position that the United States should be doing
more to back Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.

Not anymore.

“What has Abu Mazen done to strengthen himself? He’s
capitulated to Hamas,” Ackerman said. “The Mecca Accord
neither strengthens him nor helps the cause of peace…. We
now have what Secretary Rice once said we could not
accept: a Palestinian Authority with one foot in terror
and one foot in democracy.”

Ackerman concluded that Abbas “has gutted his own

Ackerman’s attack on the Mecca accords set the tone for
the rest of the meeting. The ranking Republican on the
subcommittee, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, asked how
Congress could be expected to support funding for the P.A.
when Abbas sides with Hamas. Other lawmakers followed a
similar line, urging the administration to continue
insisting that the new Palestinian government recognize
Israel and to avoid linking the situation in Iraq to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In just one session, the Democratic-led subcommittee made
it clear that at least on issues regarding the Palestinian
conflict, it stands to the right of the Bush

The three experts invited to testify — Martin Indyk, a
former American ambassador to Israel; David Makovsky,
director of the Middle East Peace program of the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Daniel
Pipes, of the hawkish Middle East Forum – were critical of
the new Palestinian national unity government. Indyk tried
to find a silver lining that would enable the renewal of
the peace process, Makovsky called on the administration
to re-examine its relations with the Saudis in light of
the Mecca agreement and Pipes said that there was never
any peace process with the Palestinian to start with.

M.J. Rosenberg of the dovish Israel Policy Forum
criticized the inclusion of Pipes in an e-mail he sent to
his group’s supporters. He called Pipes a “crank” whose
constant refrain is that “the Palestinians are bad people
with whom negotiations are impossible” and slammed the
failure to invite any Arab Americans to testify. Indyk,
Makovsky and Pipes are all Jewish and have worked for
pro-Israel groups.

The rough day for the Palestinians on Capitol Hill did not
end in the committee room. As the Middle East subcommittee
was wrapping up its discussion, in the adjacent office
building the inaugural event of the Congressional Israel
Allies Caucus was beginning. The new caucus, co-chaired by
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Republican
Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida, is a sister organization to a
similar caucus in the Israeli Knesset that promotes ties
between Israeli lawmakers and Christian supporters of
Israel around the world. Israeli lawmaker Benny Elon, who
heads the Knesset caucus, was the guest of honor at the
event and spoke of the Bible as the bridge between Jews
and Christians. Elon, who belongs to the right-wing Ichud
Leumi party, is a proponent of encouraging Arabs to leave
Israel and the territories.

At the event, Engel called on the administration and
Congress to “be resolute in supporting no negotiations and
no financial assistance to the Palestinians until they
accept the three conditions.” Engel, who represents a
district that is about 15% to 20% Jewish, with many
Orthodox families, praised the Bush administration as
being “a big supporter of Israel.”

With only 16 members — at least as of Wednesday — the new
caucus is focusing on two issues: the Palestinians and
Iran. Pro-Israel bills and resolutions relating to these
issues easily gain the support of at least 300 House
members in any vote, so it is difficult to gauge the new
caucus’s importance. Indeed, only two reporters attended
its inaugural press conference, with the empty seats in
the room filled by pro-Israel activists. Weldon, however,
said that caucus membership could “double, triple and
quadruple,” adding that no one approached by him or by
Engel had refused to join.

But for advocates of the Palestinian cause and those who
think the White House should be backing Abbas in his
struggles with Hamas, it was not Ackerman or Engel, but
rather a third New York Democrat, who dealt them the most
severe blow.

Rep. Nita Lowey, who chairs the foreign operations
subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee,
decided to put a hold on an $86 million aid request aimed
at strengthening armed forces under Abbas’s control. The
decision to put the money on hold was made even before the
Mecca agreement was signed. Now, in the wake of the
Palestinian deal, the hold is gaining support of other
members of Congress, including Ackerman and other members
of his subcommittee, who want to receive more information
from the administration before giving approval to the
transfer the funds.

The proposed funding is intended to bolster Palestinian
forces loyal to Abbas in order to help him maintain calm
in Gaza and confront challenges from Hamas forces.

A senior Bush administration official told the Forward
Wednesday that even though the atmosphere on the Hill does
not currently seem conducive to securing the aid, the
White House is not pulling back the notice on providing
the funds. “Is there still a need to have the good guys
empowered? Of course there is,” said the official.
“Nothing has changed on the ground.”

At the same time, he acknowledged, it might be more
difficult at this juncture to convince Congress that the
aid is needed.

“This is just another reason for the Palestinians to
clarify exactly where their new government stands,” the
official said.

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