The Bush administration, generally impetuous in most of its undertakings, has been uncharacteristically glacial about brokering an Arab-Israeli settlement and ushering into existence an independent Palestinian state. It is coming up on five years since President Bush announced his support for a two-state solution and a road map for getting there.
But when the radical Hamas forcibly took control of Gaza, leaving President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party in charge of the West Bank, the larger of the two fragments of Palestinian territory, the White House acted rapidly.
The White House reiterated that it would deal only with Abbas as the legitimate, elected leader and not Hamas. It lifted economic sanctions, allowing the release of $86 million in U.S. aid, largely for rebuilding the security services, and it is providing another $40 million in humanitarian aid through the United Nations.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a lengthy White House meeting with Bush on Tuesday, including a 90-minute session of just the two of them.
The European Union resumed direct aid to the Abbas government and Israel said it would consider releasing some of the $500 million in Palestinian tax revenues it has withheld.
But if the West Bank is to be held up as a model of what peace with Israel can do for the Palestinians as compared to the violent Hamas, it will take more than bankrolling a government that lost control of parliament in its last electoral outing.
Bush will have to prevail on the Israelis, as he’s been loath to do so far, to begin dismantling illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank, ease up on travel restrictions on the Palestinians and release some of the prisoners it has swept up.
In all this, Bush has a weak partner. Olmert may be the only democratically elected leader more unpopular than Bush. He’s actually had approval ratings in the single digits.
While the White House portrays the Hamas takeover as a good thing because it provides “clarification,” the fact is that it has made a bad situation worse. The White House finally reacted to developments there quickly and decisively and, one hopes, not too late.