U.S., Israel still bank on Abbas

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- After Hamas' swift and humiliating defeat of rival Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip this week, Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas woke up yesterday as president of a broken kingdom with his reputation seemingly sealed as weak and ineffective.

"A featherless chick," one commentator in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv dubbed Abbas after his military failure against Hamas.


Even so, as Israeli and U.S. officials tried to navigate the realities created by Hamas' victory, they pointed to Abbas as the key player in their efforts to back Palestinian moderates, sideline Hamas and perhaps save their failed plans to create a Palestinian state.

In five days of intense fighting, Hamas forces took over the Gaza Strip, effectively severing it from the West Bank, a Fatah stronghold, on the other side of Israel. In a futile bid to regain control as his forces retreated, Abbas declared a state of emergency, dissolving the three-month-old Hamas-Fatah coalition government and sacking Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.


Abbas started forming a new government yesterday, appointing Salam Fayyad, a political independent and former finance minister with close ties to the West, as the new prime minister. Haniyeh refuses to step down, and it's unclear whether Abbas will be able to rule Gaza and the West Bank.

'Pathway to peace'

The White House reiterated yesterday its support for Abbas' decision to disband the government and name a new prime minister, and pledged that it would continue to work with Palestinian moderates.

"There are many among the Palestinian population, and in the political system, who have chosen a pathway to peace," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

For the U.S. and Israel, the emergence of a new moderate Palestinian government without ties to Hamas might create a new opportunity to engage the Palestinians, government officials said.

"We believe that the pathway to peace is through the negotiating table, not through violence, and not through terrorism. President Abbas, we believe, has exercised his lawful authority as president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the people, and we support his decisions to try to end this violence," White House spokesman Scott M. Stanzel told reporters yesterday.

Since Hamas won elections in 2006, Israel and the United States have sought to weaken the Islamic group, which they consider a terrorist organization, pressuring it with economic sanctions and international isolation.

But a door has opened for greater Israeli-Palestinian ties. Analysts suggested yesterday that Israel should release hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax receipts, ease checkpoints and seek other ways to bolster Abbas' pragmatic leadership in the West Bank.


These issues will likely be on the agenda when President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meet in Washington next week.

Government officials suggest that the West Bank, under the rule of moderates such as Abbas, could serve as a model Palestinian state, an example for Gaza to follow.

"Ultimately, we would like the Palestinian people to understand that they have everything to gain from a moderate and pragmatic position that promises political movement, Palestinian statehood and economic development," said Mark Regev, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "These are things they have been waiting for for years. ... On the other hand, the extremists can only offer nihilistic solutions. ... We think it's in our interest, as Israelis, to show that moderate leaders can deliver."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not confirm or deny yesterday whether the U.S. was moving toward a West Bank-first strategy.

"I am not going to try to lock the secretary [Condoleezza Rice] and the president into a particular path at this point," McCormack said. "We are going to take a look at how to move forward."

But Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has largely failed in his efforts to win improvements for the lives of Palestinians from Israel. His high-profile meetings with President Bush, Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have not brought the Palestinians closer to establishing a state, weakening his standing and strengthening Hamas' position that resistance, not negotiations, delivers results.


"I never believed that Israel is interested in helping Abu Mazen," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian minister of planning. "Maybe we get a little bit of money here and a little there. It can even backfire because it will strengthen the Hamas argument that Abu Mazen is a collaborator of Israel and being supported by Israel."

If Israel fails to take bold steps to strengthen Abbas, however, Hamas will grow stronger, says Matti Steinberg, a former government adviser and a Middle Eastern affairs research fellow at Hebrew University. "If you are not working with the pragmatic Palestinians, by default the extremists will gain," he said.

At the same time, Israel and the U.S. won't be able to ignore the hardships in Gaza. They will need to figure out a way to deal with a Hamas-ruled Gaza, a poor, narrow seaside strip that is home to 1.5 million people, analysts say.

Washington will not ignore their interests, said White House spokeswoman Perino. "Nobody wants to abandon the hundreds of thousands of people in the Gaza Strip to the mercies of a terrorist organization," Perino said.

Direct dealings

Robert Hunter, a consultant at the RAND Corp. and director of Middle East affairs in the Carter administration, said that when Olmert visits next week, he will likely push for an isolation of Hamas and only minimal involvement with Abbas, but the U.S. needs to deal with the Palestinian leader more directly, he said.


"We have to get much more deeply engaged in the peace process," Hunter said. "We have to help, in humanitarian terms, the people of Gaza. The idea of strangling them - as we have, aided and abetted by the Israelis - just plays into the hands of the bad guys."

It will not be easy. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, and Israel refuses to speak with Hamas, complicating efforts to deliver water, electricity and food supplies from Israel to Gaza.

The European Union suspended its humanitarian operations in the Gaza Strip, and the Karni cargo crossing with Israel, a key lifeline for food, medicines and other goods, has been closed for nearly a week. "We don't want humanitarian hardship in Gaza. That's in no one's interest," Regev said.

But, he added, Israel and Hamas are facing an awkward reality.

"There are signed agreements on how the crossings should work. We are used to the crossings functioning with Israelis on one side and Palestinian Authority officials on the other. Unfortunately, at the moment, we have armed, masked Hamas gunmen on the other side of the crossings," he said. "We have to find ways of making this work."


Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.