( AP ) - The U.S. decision to end an economic and political embargo on the Palestinians increased pressure for a reciprocal move from Israel as the Bush administration hoped to improve the chances for peace.
Swift changes in Palestinian politics in recent days left a western-backed moderate, Mahmoud Abbas, in control of one Palestinian government in the West Bank and his Islamist rival Hamas in control of the separate Gaza Strip.
The new situation quickly became the main topic for a scheduled meeting Tuesday between President Bush and the Israeli premier that was planned before the recent changes on the ground in the Mideast.
Bush planned to discuss Abbas' request for a reinvigorated peace initiative, using his new stature as a springboard. An emboldened Abbas told Bush in a telephone call Monday that this is the time to make a move.
Israel has seemed likely to free up millions in tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, assuming it could ensure that the money flowed only to Abbas' operation in the West Bank. Ahead of his meeting with Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to be a partner with Abbas, something the Bush administration has been pushing, but it was not clear how far Olmert was willing to go.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, was to brief members of Congress on Tuesday about the Bush administration's decision to restart the flow of aid to Abbas' government. She announced the move Monday, after more than a year in which the United States pledged support for Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, but withheld money for fear it would benefit Hamas radicals governing alongside him.
"It's a day late and a $100 million short," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y., who chairs a House subcommittee focused on the Middle East. "If we were delivering goods to Abu Mazen and making him the Muslim Santa Claus in the Arab world so we was giving out the goodies, instead of Hamas, they wouldn't have lost the last election. And Hamas would have withered in the desert."
Hamas' surprise 2006 legislative victory ended decades of rule by Abbas' Fatah Party. Hamas won largely on the strength of the services and smooth government it delivered in its Gaza stronghold.
Hamas refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, conditions the world set for diplomatic engagement and aid. Hamas claims responsibility for the deaths of scores of Israelis in suicide attacks. Israel, the European Union and the United States list it as a terrorist group.
Abbas was elected separately and retained office through months of political impasse and upheaval. He tried a coalition government this spring, but he dissolved it last week after days of clashes in Gaza between his forces and Hamas that killed some 100 Palestinians.
As a first step, Rice said she will ask Congress to rework an existing $86 million aid request for the Abbas-led government. At the same time, she announced a separate $40 million contribution to United Nations relief for Palestinian refugees, a gesture to the 1.5 million Palestinians living in increasingly desperate conditions in Gaza.
"We are not going to countenance that somehow ... the Palestinians are divisible," Rice told reporters. "We're not going to abandon the Palestinians who are living in Gaza."
The cash to Abbas' government will help him meet his payroll and could improve his standing with Palestinian voters, but he remains weak. Although the Bush administration has made a point of saying that Abbas remains the leader for all Palestinians, the near-total division of the two Palestinian territories means he can fully speak for only about half his more than 3 million people.
Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the split between the territories is a problem U.S. money can't fix. Abbas and Fatah have other problems, too, Alterman said, including a history of corruption and inefficiency that had made Congress wary of direct payments long before Hamas became a factor. "It gives Fatah walking around money, but it doesn't solve the governance problem," Alterman said.