White House had considered feasibility of ceding Gaza to Hamas
(06-15) 04:00 PDT Washington
-- Bush administration officials said Thursday that they had been discussing the idea of largely acquiescing in the takeover of Gaza by the militant Islamic group Hamas and trying instead to help the Fatah party of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, retain its stronghold in the West Bank.
The United States had quietly encouraged Abbas to dissolve the Palestinian government and dismiss Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, steps that Abbas announced Thursday, administration officials said. Before the announcement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Abbas to reiterate U.S. support for the move, they said.
"President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority as the president of the Palestinian Authority, as the leader of the Palestinian people," Rice said. "We fully support him and his decision to try and end this crisis of the Palestinian people and to give them an opportunity for -- to return to peace and a better future."
The state of emergency that Abbas announced has underscored the widening rift separating Gaza, where Hamas has largely routed Fatah's forces, and the West Bank, where Abbas still has a strong base. But diplomats and Middle East experts said a "West Bank-first" strategy might now be the last option for Rice to salvage something from her plans to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The State Department insisted that the United States had no plans to abandon Palestinians living in Gaza.
Many diplomats and Middle East experts said they read Abbas' decision as an attempt to cut his losses in Gaza and consolidate power in the West Bank. Israeli officials are promoting a proposal that the West Bank and Gaza be viewed as separate entities.
Senior Bush administration officials said no decision had been made. Some State Department officials contend that the administration could only support such a separation if Israel agreed to make political concessions to Abbas in the West Bank, with the goal of undermining Hamas in the eyes of Palestinians by improving life in the West Bank.
But it would be diplomatically perilous for the United States to be seen as turning its back on Gaza. Almost half of the Palestinian population lives on the teeming strip of land. A more desperate Gaza could become a breeding ground for al Qaeda.
"Nobody wants to abandon the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the Gaza Strip to the mercies of a terrorist organization," said the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack. "We're certainly not going to participate in extinguishing the hopes of a whole swath of the Palestinian population to live in a Palestinian state."
The Bush administration has led international efforts to isolate the Hamas-dominated government, demanding that it renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and abide by existing agreements between the Palestinians and Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been trying to advance a proposal to deploy an international peacekeeping force in Gaza, but diplomats from Europe and the United States said Thursday that they doubted that many countries would be eager to send troops to Gaza.
Among Middle East experts, the possibility of trying to establish a diplomatic separation between Gaza and the West Bank and lavishing benefits on the West Bank -- an idea that seemed remote a week ago -- is now being discussed.
"This is as close as they can come to taking a sow's ear and trying to turn it into a silk purse," said Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"The fundamental decision to be made is whether they're going to say, 'Gaza, we'll cut it off and they'll have to learn to live in utter poverty and isolation,' '' said Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program.
Rice has a much tougher task if she still hopes to get a peace deal before President Bush leaves office in 2009, Middle East experts said. Several faulted the administration for not doing more to prop up Abbas two years ago, after Yasser Arafat died but before Hamas won the legislative elections.
"The solution to all this was back in 2005," said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser on Arab-Israeli relations at the State Department. "In 2005, Arafat was gone, Abbas had been freely and fairly elected, but we weren't prepared to empower him. How are we going to take advantage of the opportunities that don't exist now in 2007 when we wouldn't take advantage of the opportunities when they existed in 2005?"
Hamas' takeover of Gaza ratchets up tension / U.S. REACTION: White House had considered feasibility of ceding Gaza to Hamas