JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Obama administration plans to expand a program to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces in the occupied West Bank as part of a push for statehood, officials said on Thursday.
Israel has given tentative backing to the program as a test of Abbas’s ability to rein in militants, one of its main conditions in stalled U.S.-backed negotiations over establishing a Palestinian state.
Hamas Islamists, shunned by the United States and other Western powers for refusing to recognize Israel and renounce violence, have denounced Abbas’s forces as collaborators and say the program has fueled inter-Palestinian tensions.
U.S. and Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration planned to boost security assistance, including funding for training conducted by Jordanian police at a base near Amman, by up to 70 percent, from $75 million in fiscal year 2008 to as much as $130 million.
The State Department had no immediate comment. President Barack Obama has been vague about his policies in the region.
After talks with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to work with Abbas to address Palestinian security needs, but she has offered no details.
At a donors’ conference in Egypt on Monday, Clinton pledged $600 million to support Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and $300 million for humanitarian aid in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which was devastated by a three-week Israeli offensive.
Diplomats said it was unclear when the new money would arrive. Winning congressional approval could take months.
Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, has asked Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, the American who has been overseeing the training of Abbas’s forces, to stay on for two more years. Dayton, whose three-year assignment was due to end, has agreed, diplomats said.
While the security program has garnered bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, it could run into opposition if Egyptian-backed reconciliation talks between Hamas and Abbas’s secular Fatah faction result in another unity government.
Hamas, which won a 2006 election and receives support from Iran and other Islamist allies, forcibly seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after routing Abbas’s forces there, bringing an end to a previous unity deal opposed by Washington.
The extra funding would allow the United States to increase the number of battalions undergoing training and to provide them with more equipment. The United States provides non-lethal equipment like vehicles. Arms are supplied by Arab states.
Some 1,600 members of Abbas’s National Security Force and Presidential Guard have undergone U.S.-funded training since January 2008. Many of them have since been deployed in major West Bank cities, including Jenin, Nablus and parts of Hebron.
Hamas has accused Abbas’s forces of targeting its members in the West Bank. Hamas, in turn, has rounded up Fatah activists in Gaza. Human rights groups have accused both factions of abuses.
Israel’s defense establishment has slowly warmed to the U.S. training program after initially delaying Palestinian deployment and the delivery of some equipment for Abbas’s men.
The training has advanced while other major initiatives launched by then-President George W. Bush, including Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, foundered.
Israel’s prime minister-designate, right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, has yet to take a public position on the program. But Silvan Shalom, a Netanyahu ally and former foreign minister, expressed satisfaction with the training in a Reuters interview last week, suggesting it would enjoy support.
Netanyahu has said he wants to focus on bolstering the West Bank economy by creating development zones and lifting some travel restrictions rather than pursuing thorny territorial issues linked to the creation of a Palestinian state.
While he advocates greater Palestinian self-rule, Netanyahu has been vague about creation of an independent state, which he says must have limited powers of sovereignty and no army.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Sue Pleming in Brussels; Editing by Janet Lawrence