- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

Picture this scenario: In late July, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could be in the process of uprooting all Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, which could take place immediately after the terrorist group Hamas scores a huge political success in Palestinian Legislative Council elections. That could very well happen. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement is in disarray, and Hamas, which historically has been strongest in Gaza, is now staging mass demonstrations in West Bank cities like Bethlehem. It is possible that if Palestinian elections go forward as scheduled on July 17, Hamas could become a huge power in the PLC — the Palestinian parliament.

The following week, Mr. Sharon is scheduled to begin Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, uprooting all 17 Israeli settlements with their more than 8,000 Jewish inhabitants. If current trends continue, it would be hard to imagine a more difficult political situation for Mr. Sharon, as he prepares to do what dovish Laborites like Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak wouldn’t dare to do: uproot Gaza and West Bank settlements.

President Bush made clear on Friday that the issue of Israeli settlements will be on the agenda when he and Mr. Sharon meet today at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Washington has raised concerns about Mr. Sharon’s plans to add 3,500 homes near Ma’aleh Adumim, a West Bank settlement that is effectively a suburb of Jerusalem, and in an area virtually certain to remain in Israeli hands in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon — who is under furious assault from onetime allies over his willingness to relinquish 25 settlements in Gaza and the West Bank — sees Ma’aleh Adumim construction (which is not scheduled to occur for several years) as a way to mollify critics on the right. Mr. Bush sees the issue differently: Halting construction could bolster Mr. Abbas’s sagging political fortunes. Mr. Abbas has failed to implement a security agreement with Israel, in which Israel promises not to arrest 495 fugitives so long as the PA disarms them and prevents them from traveling between West Bank cities. Mr. Abbas has yet to carry out his promise to restructure the Palestinian security services. Meanwhile, Hamas is using the current ceasefire with Israel to test-fire more Qassam rockets, which it uses to target Jewish towns. On Saturday, terrorists from Mr. Abbas’s own Fatah movement, carrying Qassams, brazenly held a training exercise for reporters in Gaza. The perception is that Mr. Abbas right now is too weak politically to deal with these problems.

The challenge for Messrs. Bush and Sharon will be to find creative ways to help Mr. Abbas, without damaging the Israeli leader’s ability to respond to the difficult political challenges he faces.

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