Mr. Abbas Goes To Washington

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, 2005/1/31
CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has a problem: He is about to meet with President George W. Bush to ask for help for the Palestinians knowing that compared to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon he has the weaker hand when it comes to seeking the administration's support.

Mr. Bush recently met with Sharon at the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch and much credit is being given to the Israeli leader for unilaterally offering to withdraw settlers from the Gaza strip (scheduled for August). At the same time, Abbas — also known as Abu Mazen — is under pressure from both Sharon and the Bush administration to crack down on Palestinians terrorists, something he has so far been unwilling to do.

Abbas has told Ed Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who is now a consultant to the PA, that he cannot "take on these people by force of arms because we will lose." Abbas believes only a political solution will end the violence and he is working to bring groups like Hamas into the Palestinian political process, hoping they will give up violence and terror as tools in favor of using the political process to achieve change.

What can Abbas hope to achieve during his White House meeting? Abington says the Palestinians are not expecting the kind of formal letter of assurance Mr. Bush gave Sharon last year. But one thing the Palestinians will press for is a verbal commitment from Mr. Bush that Washington will push the Israelis to resume final status talks — about borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem — by the end of the year.

Palestinians want to know, according to Abington, "what will happen the day after withdrawal? Is this Gaza first; Gaza last?" Abbas has every politician's problem: he has to show his people he can deliver. The statements following the White House meeting could be helpful if Mr. Bush is willing to play a more even-handed role than he has to date.

Another thing the White House could do by presidential waiver is to approve more funding for the Palestinians to go directly to the Palestinian Authority, something Washington has been willing to do previously on only a very limited scale. Usually the aid is funneled to non-governmental organizations to spend on behalf of the Palestinians. Abbas could take credit for handing out U.S. aid money if he has control over it and one question for the White House is whether it wants to override Congressional apprehension about giving aid directly to the Palestinian Authority.

The political decisions being made now will have an impact on one of the fundamental issues affecting the likelihood of achieving Mr. Bush's stated preference for a two-state solution: two democracies, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

Abington says Abbas will tell Mr. Bush "time is running out for a two-state solution."

Other analysts, including the University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami, are not convinced the peace process is a top priority for the Bush administration. Telhami sees the administration pushing its other strategic agendas in the region — democratic reform, security and the war on terrorism — but not using its muscle with other Arab governments and at home to push the peace process.

"The question is whether they'd raise it to the top of the priority list, will they use political assets," Telhami says, adding he "doesn't see evidence of that."

By the time Abbas leaves Washington at the end of the week, the Palestinian leader may have a better understanding of just how important the political future of the Palestinian people is on Mr. Bush's list of priorities.