May 27, 2005

Abbas tells US Jews that he is fighting terror

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

At a meeting yesterday with US Jewish officials just before his White House visit, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stressed his successes staunching terrorist violence, pledged that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would not take place under fire and said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has rejected efforts to open back-channel communications about final-status issues.

The Palestinian leader met with the Jews at his Washington hotel Thursday morning in a meeting organized by American Jewish billionaire S. Daniel Abraham, founder of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. When Abbas met later in the day with President George W. Bush, the two discussed Hamas' role in the upcoming Palestinian elections, the need for a viable contiguous Palestinian state and Israel's planned pullout from Gaza.

Bush announced at a Rose Garden news conference following the meeting that he would direct $50 million for housing and other construction aid to the Palestinian Authority once the Israelis leave the coastal strip.

At the meeting with Jewish officials, "It certainly was good to hear Abu Mazen reaffirm his support for nonviolence and say negotiations are the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their objectives," said the assistant executive director of Americans for Peace, Lewis Roth, using Abbas' nom de guerre. As for Abbas' plans to keep Hamas quiet after Israel's pullout, Lewis said, "He gave some good assurances but didn't go into a lot of detail."

The hour-long meeting with the Jews included representatives from groups both left and right of center, and it was more of an opportunity for Abbas to make a gesture toward the Jews than to have a real exchange of ideas, according to some of those who attended the meeting.

"I think anytime they have an opportunity to talk to us and we have an opportunity to talk to them it's useful," said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League. "The proof is obviously going to be in terms of what happens on the ground and whether the assumptions he makes about co-opting some of the militants prove to be accurate."

Many of the Jews at the meeting said they were skeptical about Abbas' assurances that Hamas has committed to an open-ended lull in violence against Israelis, and about the Palestinian leader's ability to keep calm in the Palestinian-populated territories when the Israelis leave.

"He talked the talk, and now he's got to walk the walk," said Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum. Reich said Abbas went so far as to predict that "Palestinians would throw roses to the departing Israelis" upon Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

According to participants, Abbas also told the Jews at the meeting that Sharon had rejected his efforts to open up back-channel communications on final-status issues-something that is part of the road map peace plan.

In speeches this week to Jewish audiences in New York and Washington, Sharon made clear that he sees Israel's pullout from Gaza as part of the "pre-road map phase." He also said "Israel does not intend to lose this opportunity" to deepen its relationship with the Palestinian Authority.

"The successful coordination of the disengagement plan will enable us to embark on a new era of trust and build our relationship with the Palestinian Authority," Sharon said on Tuesday in a speech to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "We will do our utmost to cooperate with the new Palestinian leadership and will take the needed measures to help Chairman Abbas."