- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

The Bush administration, in a gesture to visiting Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, softened its stance on the militant group Hamas yesterday, saying it could survive if it transformed into a purely political organization.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — who said last month that “It is no longer possible to separate one part of Hamas from another part of Hamas” and called Hamas an “enemy of peace” — told reporters in Washington yesterday:

“If an organization that has a terrorist component to it, a terrorist wing to it, totally abandons that, gives it up, and there is no question in anyone’s mind that is part of its past, then that is a different organization.”

The secretary’s latest remarks came as Mr. Abbas visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill and met separately with American Jewish leaders prior to a meeting with President Bush at the White House today.

Mr. Powell condemned Hamas for killing “innocent people” and for killing Palestinian hopes “for a state of their own.”

However, he praised the extremist group’s “social wing” for doing “things for people in need.”

Apart from its armed wing, which conducts armed attacks and suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, Hamas operates an extensive network of medical and other social services in the Palestinian territories.

Last month, during a trip to the Middle East to promote the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace, Mr. Powell dismissed an idea — proposed by some in the Palestinian Authority — that Hamas and Islamic Jihad be allowed to become political parties if they got rid of their military wings.

“Anyone participating in public life … would be individuals and organizations that are firmly committed to democracy, to the rule of law, and not to terrorism. Right now, Hamas is clinging to terror and celebrates the terrorist attacks we are seeing,” Mr. Powell said on June 20.

“And it is no longer possible to separate one part of Hamas from another part of Hamas,” he said.

A senior administration official said yesterday that there had been no shift in administration policy. But the official said that terrorists have been known to become “peaceful forces.”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are responsible for numerous suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, on June 29 agreed to a temporary cease-fire to allow for the implementation of the road map.

Mr. Abbas, who faces possible ouster if he returns from the United States without winning significant concessions from Israel and a concrete offer of support from Mr. Bush, told a group of Jewish community leaders yesterday he would be asking the U.S. administration for increased funds to compete with Hamas’ social work.

“What Secretary Powell said requires a leap of faith,” Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said afterward.

“I think we would all welcome Hamas abandoning terrorism as a part of their platform,” she said, but added: “I need to be convinced beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt.”

Michael Bohnen, chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said of Mr. Abbas:

“He’s hoping to get additional funding from the United States so he can compete with the institutions of Hamas to basically help him achieve the support of the Palestinian people.”

Mr. Bohnen, who attended the 75-minute meeting with Mr. Abbas, said the Palestinian leader had outlined four areas of concern regarding progress on the road map: the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails; ongoing Israeli settlement activity; the construction of a fence separating Israel from Palestinian areas; and Israeli checkpoints.

“[Mr. Abbas] said those issues could become weapons in the hands of extremists,” Mr. Bohnen said.

In a high-stakes push to keep the teetering Mideast road map to peace alive, Mr. Abbas told congressional leaders Mr. Bush’s efforts could fail if more pressure is not applied on Israel.

A Palestinian official close to Mr. Abbas said he had told congressional leaders in a closed session that “if Congress continues blindly to support Israel without considering Palestinian concerns, then President Bush’s vision will not be attainable.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, said he would help to secure more U.S. assistance for the Palestinians.

Israel insists that Mr. Abbas confront and disarm the terrorist groups.

Pressure has been mounting for Mr. Abbas to gain ground with the Bush administration.

Militant Palestinian groups are crowding daily onto the streets to demand the release of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails and have threatened to abandon a June 29 truce if their demands are not met.

Other key demands include a halt on Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and an end to the construction of the security fence — described by Mr. Abbas as a “Berlin Wall” — separating Israel from Palestinian areas.

If Mr. Abbas “is unable to achieve any progress on these … points, we are sure that he will face difficulties on the Palestinian street and inside the [legislature],” warned Information Minister Nabil Amr.

The United States is keen on helping Mr. Abbas build up his credibility with the Palestinians, having supported his appointment in April in a bid to move away from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

All eyes will be on Mr. Bush as he sits down to break the deadlock between Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who arrives at the White House on Monday.

“Each of the prime ministers is coming to him and is looking to him to direct the next step,” said Mrs. Yudof. “President Bush is in a unique position to be a friend to Israel and to the Palestinians and broker this peace.”

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