- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas comes to Washington this week as part of the American effort to push ahead the road map for Middle East peace. One may expect both Mr. Abbas and President Bush to discuss a number of specific issues. Certainly, the most urgent matter is the almost total non-compliance of the Palestinians with what both the United States and Israel regard as the absolute preconditions for movement on Mr. Bush’s road map: dismantling the Palestinian terrorist organizations, handing over illegal arms and putting on trial known terrorists.

Contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the agreement, Palestinian terrorists are utilizing the 3-week-old cease-fire to rearm, with Hamas building more than 1,000 new Kassam rockets, which can be aimed at towns and villages deep inside Israel — all under the not-too-observant eyes of the Palestinian Authority. Nor has there been more than minimal progress (mainly for foreign consumption) with regard to stopping the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in the official Palestinian media and scholastic programs.

Meanwhile, Israel has gone ahead with its obligations in the first phase of the road map — unauthorized outposts were dismantled and Israeli troops have withdrawn from parts of the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem (to the chagrin of the latter town’s Christians). These will be followed by withdrawals from other Arab towns, once the Palestinian security organs take matters into their own hands.

In the meantime, however, the Palestinians have mounted a major public relations campaign to divert attention artificially from their infractions of the road map. It includes a long list of complaints and demands that bear no relationship to the road map, such as demanding the release of all Palestinian prisoners, including convicted murderers. This would be tantamount to asking the American people to set free al Qaeda terrorists directly involved in the September 11 attacks — had any of them survived and been apprehended. Though Israel, as a voluntary confidence-building measure, has set free several hundred Palestinian prisoners and will release more, a wholesale release of murderers would be indefensible.

Another issue from which the Palestinians will try to make political capital is the security fence planned by Israel to protect civilians from terrorists — especially suicide bombers. Not surprisingly, the Europeans lost no time in jumping on the anti-fence bandwagon. Officially, their solicitude was for the Palestinians, who would then find themselves on the Western (“Israeli”) side of the fence — though no similar worry was expressed about the fate of Israelis who might wake up one day east of the fence.

Actually, there is no real need to worry about those “isolated” Palestinians, as nobody is going to displace them from their lands. But once the fence is built, it will become more difficult for terrorists to use those Palestinian villages (often against the will of the people living there) as convenient launching sites for terrorist attacks against Israel. Several foreign officials, including some in the United States — perhaps not being fully aware of the dangerous implications for the security of Israel’s civilian population if the fence won’t be built — have expressed reservations, because in their view it might “prejudge” the outcome of the future territorial settlement. It won’t. As all Israeli governments and all U.S. administrations have held, negotiations, not “facts on the ground,” will be the determining factor with regard to the future borders.

Still, Mr. Abbas must be given credit for being on record that the only way to attain peace and give Palestinian Arabs self-government and economic prosperity is by reaching a political settlement with Israel. He seems, at least for now, to have come to terms with reality — a reality which was reinforced by such factors as Israel’s successful anti-terrorist military campaign last year and America’s victory over Saddam Hussein.

Unfortunately, Mr. Abbas was compelled to reach an arrangement with Yasser Arafat — as a result of which the latter will try to wrest from the Palestinian prime minister at least partial control over the negotiations and security matters. In this context, it must also be said that, regrettably, several European leaders miss no opportunity to pay homage to Mr. Arafat. This undermines Mr. Abbas’ efforts to assert himself.

When all is said and done, Mr. Abbas must still prove his mettle as the person whose actions could give President Bush’s vision of peace and stability in the region a real chance of success. He has a willing partner in the present Israeli government. Will he finally prove wrong the late Abba Eban’s dictum — that the “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity?”

Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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