A peace process in grave danger
Aside from the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will hold a summit meeting June 21 to coordinate Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, virtually all of the news right now is bleak.
Mr. Abbas's continuing failure to take action against Palestinian terrorist organizations and lawless criminal gangs in PA-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip and West Bank is eroding his credibility as a leader; if the deterioration in the PA is not arrested very soon, Mr. Abbas could be swept aside by the rejectionists, as Hamas and the gangs become dominant forces in Palestinian life. As the situation worsens, a respected Israeli citizen-soldier like outgoing Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe Ya'alon (a man who is hardly given to bombast) warns that Mr. Abbas has not abandoned maximalist demands like the "right of return." Yasser Arafat employed this demand five years ago at the Camp David summit to destroy that opportunity for a negotiated peace settlement. According to Gen. Ya'alon, if Mr. Abbas sticks to this position and manages to achieve an independent Palestinian state, he could be setting the state for war with Israel.
To be sure, Mr. Ya'alon is not a disinterested observer. He is being forced into retirement in part because of his political disagreements with Mr. Sharon over disengagement. But in an interview with Ha'aretz last week, the general (whose temperament and overall approach bear a resemblance to the style of former Sen. Sam Nunn) was extraordinarily blunt, warning that Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement is embarked on a course that will permit Hamas to take over Gaza; that if Hamas is permitted to keep its arms when Gaza voters go to the polls, you will have "armed gangs playing at pretend democracy"; and that the Israeli Army may need to go back into Gaza at some point because of the instability there.
A senior officer in one of Mr. Abbas's own Palestinian security services, speaking to the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv last week, said that the Palestinian political echelon has given no orders to defeat Hamas. The officer, who would not give his name, said that Palestinian security chiefs do not fully accept the authority of the man who is supposed to be their boss, PA Interior Minister Nasser Youssef, adding that Mr. Youssef doesn't give orders anyway. "Hamas is growing stronger in Gaza," the officer said. "It is much more organized than our side [the PA] and more disciplined."
Right now, a continuation of the same vicious cycle that has been in effect since the signing of the first Oslo agreement on September 13, 1993 -- one that has continued under Labor and Likud governments alike -- seems inevitable: Israel's government makes concessions previously thought to be unthinkable. Jerusalem withdraws from territory, grants political recognition to Palestinian national movements and aspirations and releases prisoners jailed for crimes of violence in exchange for Palestinian promises to prevent terrorism against Israel. The Palestinians then pocket the Israeli concessions and proceed to either encourage terrorism or act sporadically and ineffectively to prevent it. Israel spends countless time unsuccessfully pleading with the Palestinians to fulfill their part of the bargain. Eventually things spiral out of control, terrorist attacks become unbearable and Israel responds by assassinating terrorist leaders and reoccupying territory in self-defense.
Consider the situation right now. Although public-opinion polls have shown that Israelis decisively favor Mr. Sharon's plan to leave Gaza, Israeli society is going through a very difficult period, as its people engage in a wrenching public debate over the logistics of how to uproot their fellow countrymen from territory captured in a defensive war, territory many of these people called home for decades. While this is going on, Mr. Sharon has released another 398 Palestinians imprisoned for terrorist activities and other violent attacks from Israeli jails, bringing to approximately 900 the number released since Messrs. Abbas and Sharon held their summit in February. The 900 are overwhelmingly comprised of Palestinians who were involved in unsuccessful attempts to carry out terrorist actions, such as transporting a suicide bomber or shooter to the scene of attack during the past five years. Mr. Sharon is very understandably unenthusiastic about releasing such people, but has agreed to do so in an effort to bolster Mr. Abbas.
Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult for Israel to continue taking extroardinary risks to help Mr. Abbas out of the difficulties he is creating for himself with his ineffectual leadership --particularly as conditions grow more chaotic and lawless in the West Bank and Gaza. On Wednesday, for example, a regional leader of Mr. Abbas's Fatah organization was assassinated by five gunmen near the West Bank town of Nablus. On Saturday, gunmen briefly abducted a Palestinian diplomat in Gaza. Yesterday, gunmen, some of them members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated with Mr. Abbas' own Fatah organization, took over three government buildings in Nablus to protest their ineligibility to join the Palestinian police.
Meanwhile, Hamas is furious over Mr. Abbas's decision to indefinitely postpone elections that had been scheduled to take place next month. In recent months, when Hamas has had internal political disputes with Mr. Abbas, it has fired rockets and missiles at Israeli communities. If this occurs in the next few weeks without a substantial response from the PA, it will further weaken Mr. Abbas. Also, the IDF said it thwarted an attempt by the Damascus-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad to carry out a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Mr. Abbas may have the best of intentions, but his failure to take action against the rejectionists and thugs is doing severe damage to his credibility.
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