Bush and Hamas: What Now?

After a weekend at his ranch, President Bush returns to Washington where, on Tuesday, he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. At the top of their agenda: the takeover of Gaza by the militant Hamas forces.

While the president was in Texas, his aides were busy denying reports that the Hamas coup means his Mideast policy has failed.

Sunday, on ABC's "This Week," Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., accused Bush of failing to back the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, two years ago before crucial parliamentary elections. "He had no political standing," Biden said. "We virtually did nothing to give him any credibility. We ... ended up making Hamas look even stronger."

Bush came to the presidency six years ago, deeply skeptical that his administration should try to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He had seen President Bill Clinton fail, despite strenuous efforts, to achieve a Mideast peace accord.

Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group says Bush and his aides also had a second reason for refusing to start new negotiations. "They believed that it was not strategically important, that it was a marginal issue, and that they had bigger fish to fry."

The bigger fish, according to senior administration officials, was Iraq.

The president thought the road to peace went through Baghdad — that if democracy succeeded in Iraq, it could spread to Iran and Syria, and to the Palestinians, as well. But in June of 2002, at the urging of Europeans and, especially, his British friend, Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president announced support for a Palestinian state.

"I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders — leaders not compromised by terror," Bush said. "I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts."

Still, the president's primary focus was on Iraq. As war there dragged on, so did violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

After Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death in November 2004, Bush became more active in the region. Abbas won election as president, Bush urged him to hold parliamentary elections, and the Israelis warned the time was not right. But Bush insisted.

Hamas shocked the White House and the world by winning in a democratic election.

Because the U.S. regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, Bush cut off tens of millions of dollars in aid to all Palestinians. But the events of the past week could change that.

Hamas controls Gaza, but the more moderate Fatah party controls the West Bank. And the U.S. may decide it is now free to help them.

Malley says, "I think we're going to see, in a very few days, that the U.S. is going to unfreeze a lot of the money, because now you have a new government that's being formed. It's a government that will only be able to govern in the West Bank, but also will have no Hamas members."

Two Palestinian states are not what Bush wants. But it may be the best he can get.

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