Rice Abbas 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Some six weeks ago, the US security coordinator for the Palestinians, Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, was on Capitol Hill telling Congress that the situation in Gaza was getting worse and US assistance for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was needed.
Whatever help the US offered between then and now, it didn't keep Fatah from being overrun by Hamas militants in Gaza over the course of the past week. As Gaza counts its dead, US policy there can be found among the victims.
Until now, American efforts such as Dayton's and that of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has also been accelerating diplomatic overtures in the region in recent months, have aimed at bolstering Abbas. The idea was to make him, and his willingness to accommodate Israel, seem more appealing to the Palestinian public than the rejectionist stance of Hamas and its desire to wipe out Israel.
Instead, Thursday saw, in the words of White House Spokesman Tony Snow, Hamas "terrorizing the Palestinian people" and robbing them of "peace in their streets, democracy in their government, and the ability to move toward what everybody in the region ought to hope for, which is two nations, sovereign, living peacefully and side by side."
The US was left to work the phones Wednesday and Thursday to try to enlist Arab support for helping Abbas, whom the Bush administration still says they strongly support.
"We have talked to other states in the region about how they could support the moderate forces in the Palestinian political system, including President Abbas," said US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack Thursday, talking about US actions in the wake of the Hamas takeover of most of Gaza. "We've talked to the Egyptians about that, we've talked to the Jordanians, and I know that they themselves are talking to others in the region about how they can support President Abbas."
But ultimately, McCormack said, it was the Palestinians rather than outside actors, who would need to determine their fate, raising questions about just what role the US would play in the new drama on the ground.
"Fundamentally it is a question for the Palestinians, and again getting back to that fundamental question of what pathway they want to go down, and how do they resolve the fundamental political question of whether to seek peace with Israel or violence," he said.
Dayton's mandate to help equip and train the Palestinian forces loyal to Abbas would continue, he said, but added that no decision had yet been made about whether to increase or limit that support.
"I sense a lot of indifference right now, as well as [the attitude] that this is a thing for the Palestinians to sort out," said Scott Lasensky, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Washington-based US Institute of Peace. He attributed that largely to the lack of "messiness" of a situation without good policy options, the "fluidity" of the situation on the ground and the lack of a strong US presence in the Gaza diplomatic game until now.
Overall, when it comes to US policy there, he said, "It's a major setback."
"There are no good policy options," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This is very bad for the US. There's no sugar-coating this."
He said Gaza will be propelled to the top of the agenda for Bush-Olmert talks during the prime minister's visit next week. He said the US will want to listen to Israel's take on the situation before making any big decisions.
"The Palestinian issue, in terms of the immediacy of it, is going to be front and center," an Israeli embassy official said.
"There's going to be coordination between the two countries," he added.
"They're deliberating, just like we are. I don't think that we can come up with quick fixes to things that are this complicated."