A showdown could be looming between Congress and the Bush administration over a $150 million request for emergency aid for the Palestinian Authority government led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
At issue is whether or not Mr. Abbas has either the capacity or desire to bring Palestinians closer to a peace deal with Israel, and it was his own words that triggered congressional wrath.
In an interview with Jordanian newspaper Al-Dastur last week, Mr. Abbas spoke with pride of violence he had waged in his past, suggested that terrorism could start anew in the future, and essentially backed away from repeated statements that he recognizes Israel’s right to exist. A top congressional appropriator, Foreign Operations Chairman Nita Lowey, said flatly, President Abbas’ recent statements cast doubt on his willingness to take the steps necessary for peace with Israel.
But Mr. Abbas’ comments alone likely would not have sparked this fracas. Just one day after news of the interview shocked key legislators and staffers, who learned of it last Thursday when it was translated into English by watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), the administration sent over its request for $150 million in direct cash assistance to Abbas’ PA.
What were they [administration officials] thinking sending over the request the day after Abbas announces he’s open to re-starting terrorism and doesn’t really recognize Israel’s right to exist? asked one miffed Hill staffer.
Appearing much less careful than when speaking in English, Mr. Abbas last week told the Arabic-language Al-Dastur, I was honored to be the one to shoot the first bullet in 1965, the year his organization, Fatah, initiated terrorism against Israel. (Transcript provided by PMW.) The renowned moderate Palestinian leader then explained his pride in having taught resistance to many in this area and around the world … including Hezbollah, who were trained in [PLO] camps.
At least Mr. Abbas stated an opposition to terrorism, noting, Now we are against armed conflict. His reasoning, though, is what troubles Congress: because we are unable. Possibly hinting at a shift in strategies, he immediately added, In the future stages, things may be different.
Most concerning to Congress, however, was a statement that at first blush might seem relatively innocuous. Discussing the question of whether or not Hamas must recognize Israel, Mr. Abbas explained, I don’t demand that the Hamas movement recognize Israel. I only demanded of the [Palestinian] national unity government that would work opposite Israel in recognition of it.
This comment raised eyebrows because it shifted the common understanding of what it means to recognize the Jewish state. Most understand recognition to be fairly straightforward: The acknowledgement of the right of Israel to exist peacefully as a Jewish state neighboring a Palestinian one. Mr. Abbas, however, now defines recognition as acknowledging in a literal sense that an entity named Israel is the country at the other end of the negotiating table.
Mr. Abbas does not deserve the benefit of the doubt on this count. Defending his recognition of Israel on TV network Al-Arabiya in October 2006, he explained that it was more a practical reality than a meaningful political position. He cited as an example the need for the PA to get $500 million from Israel: The Palestinian finance minister has to come to an agreement with the Israeli finance minister about the transfer of the money. So how can he make an agreement with him if [the PA finance minister] does not recognize him? So I do not demand of Hamas nor any other to recognize Israel. But from the government that works with Israelis in day to day life, yes.
In other words, Mr. Abbas only recognizes Israel when money is on the line, but not in the way the U.S. and Israel think he does.
The contents of that interview only came to public attention because of the tireless work of Palestinian Media Watch, which monitors a wide array of Palestinian media on a shoestring budget. And in the next week, PMW will be releasing a report titled Since Annapolis, which will detail how in the few months since this most recent round of peace talks, the PA Abbas-controlled media has continued to send clear messages to its people that deny Israel’s right to exist and anticipate its destruction, according to PMW director and founder Itamar Marcus.
Even if Rep. Lowey gets strong bipartisan support to withhold the $150 million from the PA, odds are Mr. Abbas will get the money he needs in the short run, whether from the U.S. or not. But in the future, he might finally be more careful before speaking even in Arabic.
Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.