What Abbas wants from US

Palestinian leader - and Bush - face new challenges to a fledgling Middle East democracy.

When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House this week, the first Palestinian leader to meet with President Bush will be feted as an example of democracy's possibilities in the Middle East.

But Mr. Abbas, elected only in January yet already facing a new round of national elections scheduled for this summer, will also stand as an example of democracy's uncertainties.

The rising attraction to many Palestinians of Islamic radicalism as a political force is evident in the strength of the extremist Hamas organization in recent municipal elections. Hamas looks as if it could challenge the traditional dominance of Abbas's secular Fatah organization in the upcoming Legislative Council elections. Thus an international press is on - including in the US - to bolster Abbas and moderate, reformist forces.

What remains unclear is how the Bush-Abbas meeting on Thursday will play among Palestinians. Officials close to Abbas have said he will seek to convince Bush to pressure Israel to stick to the "road map" for peace and to ease conditions for Palestinians in occupied lands.

Yet its far from certain that Bush will choose the delicate weeks preceding Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza to push the government of Ariel Sharon.

At the same time, a certain disappointment has started to tarnish Palestinian expectations of the US. One reason: The US has been slow to deliver on the substantial economic aid that an enthusiastic Bush pledged to the post-Arafat Palestinians in his State of the Union address.

"There is a growing sentiment among Palestinians that the Bush administration has not delivered on its lofty rhetoric about the benefits of democracy and progressive reforms, and that disappointment is starting to have political impact," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "Mahmoud Abbas is trying hard to put the Palestinian house in order and to show the Palestinian people that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But he is not getting much help in doing that."

In his State of the Union address, Bush pledged $350 million to help Abbas's reform efforts. But so far the president has requested $200 million in assistance that is now making its way through Congress.

And critics of the allocation are emphasizing that Congress is so far earmarking about $140 million of the package to Abbas's Palestinian Authority, while the rest of the package is going to accountability measures and to Israel for border checkpoint construction and to private hospitals.

"Clearly Abbas is coming with a request for the president to make good on his call to support Palestinian democracy, and that request will be in the form of lots of aid to improve social and economic conditions," says Bernard Reich, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at George Washington University in Washington. "But Congress has shown no particular interest in providing large amounts of unrestricted aid."

Abbas will also be looking for Bush to commit to the process leading to a Palestinian state after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, Mr. Reich says. "He wants to hear loud and clear that the US is committed to getting the process from A to B," he says.

But Reich says that the spotlight Bush will place on democracy's march in the Middle East notwithstanding, this is not the ideal moment for Bush to pressure either Congress - or Israel. "I'm not sure how much political capital he wants to spend when he has short-term worries at home that don't make a fight with Congress over money very attractive right now," Reich says.

A failure to reap concrete rewards would be all the more disappointing to Abbas because he will come to Washington with a good report card under his arm from the US official assigned to monitor Palestinian progress at dismantling terrorist infrastructure and reforming security efforts.

Last week Gen. William Ward, appointed by Bush in February as a security envoy, praised the Palestinian Authority's efforts at security reforms. He said progress was being made in cleaning up and streamlining often hostile security forces.

"The Palestinian Authority has taken essential steps to ... restructure its forces, to cause a single line of authority to exist," General Ward said after meeting the Palestinian interior minister last week. He noted more work remains to be done, but US officials also say the reform efforts have already bore fruit in a calmer security situation in the Palestinian territories and in Israel.

Still, signs are growing that the calm may be unraveling. New spikes of violence hit Gaza recently, and Hamas and its ally, the much smaller Islamic Jihad, are hinting that violence will grow if certain conditions aren't met.

Supporters of the two organizations claim Abbas is violating conditions of their cease-fire by arresting party militants, and they reject Fatah's questioning of municipal election results that were favorable to Hamas. But above all they are calling for Abbas to stick to a July 17 date for national elections.

Reich notes that while Abbas faces pressures at home "as an elected leader," Bush will have more than just a skeptical Congress watching over him as he meets a Palestinian president for the first time. Noting that - by coincidence or not - Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon will be in Washington for private meetings, Reich says Bush "will have the hulking shadow of Sharon over his shoulder."

Sharon, apparently not wishing to sound too bearish during the Palestinian leader's visit, is offering a few incentives of his own. Early this week in New York, for example, he said Israel would be happy to leave the Gaza-Egyptian border after the planed withdrawal, if Egypt acts to bring arms smuggling under control.

Given all the current dynamics, Abbas may go home with little more than a White House handshake. But analysts say he'll try to put even that to good use.

"If nothing else he'll have an 8-by-10 glossy with the president to put on his website," Reich adds. "It's still a feather in his cap."

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