Bush administration officials said Thursday that they had been discussing the idea of largely acquiescing in the takeover of Gaza by the militant Islamic group Hamas and trying instead to help the Fatah party of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, retain its stronghold in the West Bank.
The United States had quietly encouraged Abbas to dissolve the Palestinian government and dismiss Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, steps that Abbas announced Thursday, administration officials said. Before the announcement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Abbas to reiterate U.S. support for the move, they said.
“President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority as the president of the Palestinian Authority, as the leader of the Palestinian people,” Rice said. “We fully support him and his decision to try and end this crisis of the Palestinian people and to give them an opportunity for — to return to peace and a better future.”
The state of emergency that Abbas announced has underscored the widening rift separating Gaza, where Hamas has largely routed Fatah’s forces, and the West Bank, where Abbas still has a strong base. But diplomats and Middle East experts said a “West Bank first” strategy might now be the last option for Rice to salvage something from her plans to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The State Department insisted that the United States had no plans to abandon Palestinians living in Gaza.
Many diplomats and Middle East experts said they read Abbas’ decision as an attempt to cut his losses in Gaza and consolidate power in the West Bank. Israeli officials are promoting a proposal that the West Bank and Gaza be viewed as separate entities, and that Israel act more forcefully in Gaza to crack down on Hamas militants.
Senior Bush administration officials said no decision had been made. Some State Department officials contend that the administration could only support such a separation if Israel agreed to make political concessions to Abbas in the West Bank, with the goal of undermining Hamas in the eyes of Palestinians by improving life in the West Bank.
But it would be diplomatically perilous for the United States to be seen as turning its back on Gaza. Almost half of the Palestinian population lives on the teeming strip of land. A more desperate Gaza could become a breeding ground for al-Qaida.