On Thursday, 26 May 2005, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet U.S. President George W. Bush. This is the first meeting between Bush and a Palestinian president. For the Palestinian leadership, the meeting comes at a sensitive time. Domestically, Abbas’ Fateh party is facing tough political competition from the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in local elections. Internationally, Abbas is wrapping up a multi-country trip aimed at re-establishing high-level contacts that diminished during Israel’s confinement of the late Yasser Arafat to his Ramallah headquarters.
According to Palestinian officials, Abbas will present Bush with a Palestinian vision of the requirements for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. However, there are some who doubt that the U.S. administration will give Abbas the political and financial support he needs to face the challenges at home.
The Palestinian Vision
Fully aware of the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Abbas will assure Bush that the Palestinians will work to ensure its success. However, Abbas will reiterate that the withdrawal’s success hangs on a U.S. guarantee to the Palestinians that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza is the first step in a clear political process known as the Road Map. Furthermore, Abbas will explain that the Palestinians expect the Israeli disengagement from Gaza to be a full withdrawal, including from Gaza’s northern and eastern sectors. To ensure a stable Gaza Strip, Abbas will emphasize the political and economic necessity for territorial linkage between Gaza and the West Bank. Furthermore, Palestinians’ free access to the world will require Palestinian control over Gaza’s airspace, port, and borders with Israel and Egypt.
To quell criticism at home, Abbas will need U.S. guarantees, or an "antidote" to the letter Bush gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last year regarding settlements, refugees and borders. Abbas will call on Bush publicly endorse the Road Map once again, and to privately call on Israel to enter final-status negotiations. For Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, initiating final status talks on issues such as borders, Jerusalem, and settlements–”even if through "back channel" talks–”is a priority. Abbas will look to come out of this meeting with some Palestinian "ownership" of the process.
Financially, Abbas will ask Bush to expedite movement on the $200 million aid package to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite debate in Congress that indicates only $139.5 million will be allocated and only via the U.S. Agency for International Development and certain non-governmental organizations, rather than to the PA directly. Fifty million dollars of the allotted money has been designated to Israel for the construction of border crossings. By designating the border-crossing money solely to Israel, the political message is that Israel has the final word over border crossings. Abbas will underscore need for direct aid to the PA in order to rebuild the Gaza airport and sea port, to grow the Palestinian economy, and to support human development projects. Abbas needs to provide the U.S. administration with a list of "priority economic projects" that the PA needs to start developing in the Occupied Territories.
The U.S. Commitment
Some Palestinian and U.S. officials believe that the Bush administration will not give Abbas written guarantees. Nevertheless, Abbas would benefit from a public acknowledgement from Bush that the measures the PA has taken fall under its Road Map obligations. Most importantly, a confirmation from Bush that the first phase of the Road Map is underway would help Abbas in his quest for a guarantee that the Gaza disengagement is part of a larger political process. With that acknowledgement, the message to Sharon, who has said Israel considers the parties at a pre-Road Map stage until the Palestinians dismantle what he calls the "terror" infrastructure, would be that Israel must meet its obligations under the Road Map–”mainly, easing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and a freeze in settlement activity.
Abbas will stress the fact that the PA has completed most of its Phase One obligations under the Road Map; particularly, it has consolidated the security services into three apparatuses and advanced democratic reform by appointing a prime minister and holding free elections.
Abbas will remind Bush of the U.S. administration’s public statements that Israel should not carry out actions that prejudice the final status talks. Speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on 23 May 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "Israel must take no actions that prejudice a final settlement or jeopardize the true viability of the Palestinian state, and Israel must help to create the conditions for the emergence of that democratic state." Palestinians need Bush to go a step further and spell out the steps that would prejudice a final settlement, including construction of the separation wall deep inside Palestinian territory, settlement expansion specifically around Jerusalem, and alterations to the borders.
Palestinians, Israel, and Hamas will be following carefully Thursday’s meeting between Abbas and Bush. Israel will listen for what Bush says, Palestinians for what he does not say, and Hamas for what it can use to gain ground against Fateh in the legislative election campaign.
With diplomatic momentum at a low, Abbas will look to Bush for assurances that there will be political movement toward talks on a Palestinian state–”that is, final status negotiations after Israel’s Gaza withdrawal. Without a political breakthrough, Abbas will have to explain to Palestinians whether the actions he has taken to appease Bush have been worth the political cost. He will need to assure Palestinians that his election platform of a negotiated settlement with Israel will lead to an end to occupation and not push Palestinians into civil war.