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A small group of congressional staffers gathered this week in a Capitol Hill conference room to welcome the incoming Washington director of a relatively new pro-peace Jewish advocacy group - Brit Tzedek V'Shalom - a grass-roots organization aimed at promoting the idea of negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The small reception concluded a day of intensive lobbying by the group on the Hill. Its message to members of Congress was simple: Sit still - don't jump when you hear the results of the Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Brit Tzedek V'Shalom President Marcia Freedman is a former member of Knesset and a founding mother of the Israeli feminist movement. She joined the Knesset at the same time as Ehud Olmert and remembers him fondly. While he entered as its youngest member in 1973 (at the age of 28), she entered as its second youngest.
Freedman focused her lobbying efforts on presenting an optimistic scenario of the upcoming PA elections.
"What Abbas sees is the Northern Ireland model, where the IRA first joined the political process and only after that disarmed," she said.
She believes this is what will happen to the Hamas as well, and wants to make sure that the US does not interfere with this process prematurely.
Few in Washington share her view. Congress has become impatient with the PA. It has already issued an overwhelmingly backed resolution warning the PA that it would lose American support in the event of Hamas participation in the elections. This resolution, heavily endorsed by pro-Israel lobbyists, was only a first signal to the PA. It does not include any practical measures. But congressional sources have estimated that if the Hamas does emerge with a significant showing and thus becomes part of the Palestinian cabinet, a new resolution will start to circulate within days - this time directly calling on the administration to take action against the PA.
Not that the administration needs much pushing on this issue.
SENIOR OFFICIALS Elliott Abrams and David Welch, who met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas last week, conveyed explicit warnings about future US-PA relations if Hamas is in power. The issue of cutting financial aid was also mentioned. Though the direct aid the US provides the PA is not significant (it is expected to reach only $250 million), America can wield its influence to cause a cutback in the much greater financial assistance provided by other countries.
Indeed, the administration is frustrated by the way Abbas is running the PA. Though it does not regret allowing the Palestinian leader to put off dealing with the Hamas until after the elections, it is disappointed that he did not use the time to do something - even something symbolic - to prove to the world that he is serious about his intention to implement the "one authority, one gun" principle. In addition, the headway on financial transparency that was made during the period in which Salem Fayyad served as PA finance minister has taken a turn for the worse, causing American officials to renew complaints of there being no control over money given to the PA.
What is most troubling to the administration is the collapse of the Rafah agreement. This accord, detailing the procedures of opening the border-crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, was hailed in Washington as a huge achievement on the part of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who personally brokered it. To many in the administration and in Congress, it served as proof that when the US is willing to get involved and use its political capital, things on the ground can really start moving.
But now, with the Rafah deal in ruins, so is the image of the US as a peace broker in the Middle East.
THE MAIN goal of the administration for the past several months has been to make sure the momentum created by the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is not lost. Disengagement was seen as a jump-start for the peace process; and for the Americans, it was a great chance to dive back in and escort both sides into the road map.
But difficulties began to crop up, one after the other.
First there were the Palestinian complaints about the Gaza Strip turning into a giant prison. In response, the US pressured Israel to open the border-crossings. Then came the Kassam rockets, which prompted the administration to support Israeli air strikes and artillery shelling of the Gaza Strip, which brought the Palestinians to claim that these actions were only strengthening the Hamas. Then there was the dispute over the east Jerusalem voting. And then the incapacitation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon forced the administration to take it easy on his successor.
Neither side in the conflict is pleased. The Israelis see no movement on the part of the PA to curb terrorism. The Palestinians don't see enough effort on the part of Israel to help Fatah counter the Hamas in the elections. The US is caught in the middle, trying to satisfy everyone.
Five months after disengagement - referred to by President Bush as "a historic opportunity" - the US is again up to its neck in conflict management. No one is talking about "keeping up the momentum' anymore. It's gone.
The question now facing the administration is what to do the day after the Palestinian elections.
It is a given that Hamas will end up in an influential position in the new Palestinian cabinet. American law prohibits any contact of American officials with organizations on the State Department's terror list - which the Hamas has been on for years.
American diplomats will probably resort to the "Hizbullah formula," implemented in Lebanon: Just as the US officials in Beirut deal with the Lebanese government but do not talk to the members who represent the Hizbullah (also on the terror list), they will continue dealing with the PA without talking directly to Hamas representatives.
But this only relates to technicalities. On the broader issue, the US will have to decide if it still sees any chance to move forward with Abbas or whether it is time to write off the PA, reduce involvement to the necessary minimum and wait for better days. This decision will have to be postponed for a few months. It will depend on the level of violence after the elections, on the results of the elections in Israel and on Abbas's ability to regain the credit he lost.