Israel defends Fayad to US House delegation

Unusual diplomacy continues as PM avoids opposing US-Saudi arms deal.

Livni Olmert 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Livni Olmert 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In an unusual diplomatic twist, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not urge US congressmen to fight a proposed massive US arms deal to Saudi Arabia, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went to bat for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad in meetings with a delegation of Democratic US congressmen over the last two days. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a fifth-term congresswoman from Nevada, said Tuesday that Olmert, in a meeting with the delegation a day earlier, had not came out definitively for or against the proposed sale of some $20 billion of weaponry to the Saudis. "Olmert did not say this was the greatest thing since sliced bread," Berkley said after a press conference in the capital. "What he said was: 'Look, I've got enemies on this side of me, and enemies on that side of me, and it's a matter of priories. The Americans have been working hand-in-glove with my people, and my military people are telling me that even with the sale, we will still retain our qualitative edge - that is their commitment to me.'" According to Berkley, who is Jewish and a staunch supporter of Israel, Olmert "didn't say he opposes the sale, and he didn't say he supports it. I don't want to make this sound like he was the cheerleader for this; he clearly was not. But on the other hand, if you ask me if he started pounding his hand on the desk and saying, 'Not in my lifetime, not if there is breath in my body‚' he didn't do that, either." Berkeley is one of 115 US representatives who have already signed a nonbinding resolution opposing the Saudi arms deal. She said at the time that she would oppose the deal, even if Israel did not. "This is something that I think is bad not only for Israel, but for the whole region," she said. "Bush is going to be gone in 18 months, but the Saudis are going to have $20 billion worth of military equipment and state-of-the-art weapons systems." Meanwhile, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the leader of the 18-member delegation and House majority leader, said that Olmert and Livni had helped convince him that the PA's payment of salaries to Hamas security men in Gaza last week was a "clerical bureaucratic mistake." Hoyer said he had brought up the issue during meetings with Olmert, Livni and the US consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles. "All three said they believed that this was a clerical, bureaucratic mistake, not a conscious effort to help Hamas. In light of the fact that Israel's foreign minister, Israel's prime minister and our consul general all agreed on that fact, Mr. Fayad's representations had more credibility with us when we brought it up with him." The delegation met with Fayad in Ramallah on Tuesday. Hoyer said the PA prime minister had gone through how the error happened "quite extensively." Fayad told Hoyer that a third of those paid "accidentally" actually received their money, but that 45 minutes after learning of the payments, he'd notified the banks to stop payment on the checks, and that the rest of those for whom payment orders had gone out were unable to withdraw the money. Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, led a similar Republican delegation here last week and met with Fayad. A day after that meeting, in which he was assured that there would be no Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, the payments were made, leading Cantor to write an angry letter to Fayad demanding an explanation. Hoyer said that while he could understand Cantor's concern, "I believe it was, in fact, a mistake and not a policy." Hoyer said Fayad had made clear to him that "Hamas could and would not be a partner in moving forward," and that there would be no Hamas component in his government or in any group negotiating with Israel. Livni, meanwhile, also made reference to Hamas on Tuesday, saying at a press conference with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso that engaging the group would be a "big mistake." "I know that it looks tempting, and I know that the international community is eager to see an understanding between Hamas and Fatah, but this is wrong. This is a big mistake, huge," she said. Livni's comments came a day after both Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee called for engagement with Hamas. Olmert spoke to Prodi on Tuesday and, according to Olmert's office, the Italian prime minister assured him that Italy's position had not changed, and that Rome would only engage with Hamas if the organization denounced terrorism, recognized Israel and accepted previous agreements. Livni is scheduled to meet with Aso, Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib and PA negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jericho on Wednesday to launch a Japanese-funded project that envisions an agro-industrial zone being set up in the Jordan Valley, with the products to be sent to a distribution center in Jordan for shipment to other countries in the Arab world. The Democratic congressional trip was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), an independent, nonprofit charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The AIEF also brought 18 Republican congressmen here last week. Among the members of the 18-member Democratic delegation is Minnesota's Rep. Keith Ellison, the US's first Muslim congressman. This is Ellison's second trip to Israel since being elected in November.