Bush-Olmert talks seek to bolster Abbas, Israel tightens screws on Hamas

1226.jpgUS President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged on Tuesday to bolster Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, as Israel sought to tighten the screws on Hamas Islamists who control Gaza.Bush and Olmert reaffirmed their commitment to the vision of a Palestinian state but offered no concrete plan to achieve a negotiated deal with Abbas while his new emergency Cabinet rules only the West Bank and Gaza remains in Hamas’ hands.

“He is the president of all the Palestinians,” Bush said of Abbas, with Olmert at his side in the Oval Office. “He has spoken out for moderation. He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighbourhood.'” Western powers have rallied behind Abbas with promises of renewed aid, hoping to contain damage from Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last week and parlay it into revived peace moves between Palestinian moderates and Israel.

The object is to further isolate Hamas, branded a terrorist organisation by the United States, Israel and the European Union. But to date that policy has only emboldened the group in its challenge to Abbas.

Meeting to coordinate strategy, Olmert and Bush threw their support behind Abbas, who has dismissed the Hamas-led government and formed a Cabinet of Fateh loyalists in the West Bank as a counterweight to the Islamists’ control of Gaza.

“Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad … will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction,” Bush said before the closed-door White House meeting with Olmert.

The United States and EU pledged on Monday to lift an economic and diplomatic embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority in March 2006 after Hamas won elections and rejected calls to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

Olmert, who has promised to release Palestinian tax revenues withheld since Hamas came to power, said he wants to make “every possible effort” to cooperate with Abbas.

But he stopped short of bowing to Abbas’ push for full-scale peace talks, and Bush showed no signs of pressuring the Israeli leader on the matter.

Choking off supplies

In Jerusalem, senior Israeli and Western officials said Israel plans to choke off all but humanitarian and basic supplies to Gaza. One Israeli official described the impoverished coastal strip as a “terrorist-controlled entity”.  Israel evacuated Palestinians wounded in Gaza fighting at a border crossing on Tuesday where dozens have been trapped for days since Hamas routed Fateh forces in the coastal strip.

Israeli authorities also permitted truckloads of food and medical equipment sent by international aid groups to enter Gaza, Israeli radio stations reported.

But Israel plans to bar Palestinian tax funds transferred to Abbas from reaching Gaza to run Hamas-led agencies and pay workers, two senior Israeli officials said.

The Bush administration has signalled it sees a “West Bank first” policy — doing its utmost to bolster Abbas and to nurture Israeli contacts with him — as the best way to salvage something from Hamas’ military victory in Gaza.

But some analysts suggest this strategy only masks the failure of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy and could backfire by further radicalising the Gaza Strip.

Bush did not answer a reporter’s question whether the Palestinian territorial split had dealt a blow to prospects of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel before the end of his term in January 2009.

Palestinians claim both the West Bank, where Israel maintains Jewish settlements, and Gaza for their future state.

Abbas wants Bush to urge Israel, Washington’s close ally, to begin peace talks as soon as possible to show his people he can make progress towards their dream of independence.

It remains unclear, however, whether Bush, Olmert and Abbas, all weakened by domestic and international forces, have the political capital to advance the peace process.

Majdi Al Khalidi, an adviser in Abbas’ office, told Western diplomats the emergency government could remain for a period of two months and then become a caretaker administration that could try to lay the ground for new elections.

Israeli officials say up to $400 million in Palestinian tax revenues will be transferred to Abbas’ emergency government in stages, short of the $700 million sought by Abbas. Israel says the rest of the money has been frozen by court order.

It is unclear whether the EU will go along with Israeli efforts to isolate Gaza, whose 1.5 million residents are heavily aid-dependent.

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