Bush, many others pin hopes on Palestinian vote
By Ron Kampeas
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WASHINGTON (JTA) -- It was modest as Christmas miracles go -- for one day, Israeli soldiers manned the barriers armed with baskets of candy, and Palestinians armed with guns kept the peace -- but it was the result of heavy lifting in Washington, Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East.
And those players who made sure Bethlehem was peaceful for Christmas celebrations were hoping to pull off a bigger miracle this month: free, peaceful and credible elections for Palestinian Authority president.
The Bush administration has formed an unlikely coalition of Congress and the United Nations, as well as Israel, Arab and European governments, to seize the opportunity to replace the late Yasser Arafat with a Palestinian leader who can work with Israel.
"Both the Congress, along with the administration, realize that the passing of Mr. Arafat creates an opportunity that was not there as long as he was alive," Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the House of Representatives' majority whip, told JTA.
In early December, Blunt led one of four high-level congressional tours to the Middle East since Arafat's Nov. 11 death, an extraordinary amount of attention considering the timing: the run-up to a new Congress, a second Bush term and huge domestic diversions such as the fate of social security and the ballooning national deficit.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), settling back into the Senate after his own failed presidential run, is to lead a sixth visit around the time of the Jan. 9 P.A. elections.
Blunt said the level of attention was not excessive.
"It's a moment we want to do everything possible to take advantage of," he said.
One signal of the seriousness of the endeavor was Blunt's bunkmate on the Israel trip: Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Blunt's Democratic counterpart.
The two get along well as friends but are divided on most issues. On reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, however, they now speak as one, burying election-season rhetoric in which each party tried to out-pro-Israel the other.
"On this issue, we are in very substantial agreement, almost total agreement," Hoyer said.
That unanimity likely will crush expectations on the Israeli right for the kind of conservative congressional opposition that hampered the Oslo agreements in the 1990s. National Religious Party leader Effi Eitam was in Washington in November hoping to get a hearing on the settlement movement's opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to leave the Gaza Strip next year.
Hoyer likes to kid Blunt that his boss, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the House majority leader, is "to the right of Sharon" on Israel issues -- DeLay gutted a pro-Israel resolution this summer of language supporting the Gaza withdrawal -- but Blunt suggests that those days are over, and that congressional Republicans fully back Bush's activist agenda.
"I'm recognized as a leader of a group in the Congress that supports Israel," Blunt said. "I believe the Congress will be overwhelmingly supportive of the Israeli government's efforts to find a permanent and peaceful solution."
Even more remarkable, in a season of recriminations on the Iraq war among Congress, the United Nations, the Bush administration and the international community, is the unanimity those players show on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Fending off demands for his resignation because of a prewar oil-for-food corruption scandal, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan brushed aside any tensions when it comes to Middle East peace.
"We see that the dynamics -?? have changed and there is an opening which, if effectively exploited, can move the process forward," Annan said in December. "There are many other countries in Europe and elsewhere who have become very engaged in this process, as well as countries in the region that we hope to work with."
Further advancing the process is Israel's accession to British plans for a post-election conference on P.A. reform, as well as Egypt's role in assuming responsibility for the Gaza transition, despite tensions with the United States over Iraq and Bush's grand plan to democratize the region.
"Egypt has been involved for many months now in an extremely close and extremely constructive dialogue with the government of Israel," David Satterfield, the second in command at the State Department's Near East bureau, said in a recent conference call with U.S. Jewish officials.
Israel and Egypt quietly have exchanged letters amending the 1978 Camp David accords to allow Egypt to increase its forces along the Gaza border to stem arms smuggling. Additionally, Egypt will place police trainers in Gaza after the withdrawal, a greater commitment than its earlier offer to train P.A. security forces in Egypt.
Jordan is to play a similar role in parts of the West Bank that are to move to autonomous Palestinian rule next year.
U.S. cash is playing its role: U.S. assistance has been instrumental in setting up trade zones in Egypt and Jordan that both governments need to persuade their constituencies that accommodation with Israel pays dividends.
More is to come, Satterfield told listeners, on the United Jewish Communities-Jewish Council for Public Affairs call.
"We are very hopeful that the Egyptian ambassador will be returned to Israel in the new year," he said. although Egypt says not to expect such a move.
The United States also earmarked $23.5 million to ease Palestinian debt and pay for the elections, and the Bush administration is pressing other nations to match its contributions.
Hoyer said Congress would continue to monitor closely such spending, mindful of how such funds disappeared in the past into Arafat's black hole of corruption and terrorism.
"The majority of the Congress is going to be very focused on the money stream, the transparency of each expenditure," he told JTA.
Driving efforts to close the deal, the parties say, is the determination of two men: Bush, who has made Israeli-Palestinian peace a centerpiece of his grand plan to reform the Middle East, and Sharon.
"I've probably met with Prime Minister Sharon 20 times in 20 years, and I've never seen him more engaged or more committed to find a solution than I did on the trip," Blunt said.
Much of it shows in Sharon's recent actions: ousting troublesome partners from his government, winning crucial support from his Likud Party for the Gaza withdrawal and signing a new pact for a unity government with the opposition Labor Party.
Sharon's rhetoric has taken a dramatic turn, embracing the Palestinians as a partner in the Gaza withdrawal and envisioning a Palestinian state where they "can live in dignity and freedom."
But Sharon's actions speak the loudest. Handing Bethlehem's security to the Palestinians was only the latest such transfer; Israeli troops quietly have been pulling back from heavily populated areas.
Additionally, the army has spent millions of dollars on a new scanner system that aims to reduce checkpoint times to three minutes per person and cut physical contact between Israelis and Palestinians to a bare minimum, reducing friction.
On Dec. 27, Sharon freed 159 Palestinian prisoners in another gesture.
Such changes, while significant, are taking place with a minimum of fanfare, as Sharon doesn't want to undermine the candidacy of Mahmoud Abbas, the relative moderate who is expected to win Jan. 9.
No one dares yet call it peace, at least not until the world sees what Abbas has to offer. Bush says the Jan. 9 elections are a first step in the process, but not a final one.
"It is not the sign that democracy has arrived," Bush said at his end-of-year news conference. "It is the beginning of a process."