- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

Now that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Cabinet have accepted President Bush’s road map for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — the first time that an Israeli government has formally endorsed a Palestinian right to an independent state — preparations are being made for a peace summit involving President Bush, Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the coming days.

In the wake of recent suicide bombings, progress had appeared unlikely. But during the course of delicate negotiations last week with Dov Weisglass, Mr. Sharon’s chief of staff, the White House secured Israel’s agreement on a formula that would permit negotiations to proceed. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice issued a joint statement addressing Mr. Sharon’s major concerns about the road map: that it did not force the Palestinians to drop their demand for the “right of return” of millions of refugees to Israel and did not force them to take immediate action against terrorist groups operating out of PA-controlled areas. “The United States shares the view of the government of Israel that these are real concerns, and will address them fully and seriously in the implementation of the road map to fulfill the president’s vision,” Mr. Powell and Miss Rice said.

During the past week, there have been a series of hopeful signs suggesting that Palestinian terrorist groups are losing their grip on the Palestinian “street,” and that Mr. Abbas may be in a stronger position to take action against them than previously thought. In Beit Hanoun, a Palestinian border town in the northern Gaza Strip, hundreds of residents staged angry demonstrations following a five-day incursion by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF entered the town in order to oust Hamas operatives who often fire rockets at the Israeli village of Sderot, located just half a mile away. But Palestinians, for a change, weren’t protesting Israeli actions — they were quite understandably venting their anger at Hamas for making Palestinian towns a target for Israeli counterterrorism operations. Hamas and others “claim they are heroes,” a 30-year-old Palestinian farmer told the Associated Press. “They brought us only destruction and made us homeless.”

Meanwhile, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the families of Palestinian suicide bombers are complaining about the fact that, with the fall of Saddam Hussein, they’re losing the financial stipends they used to be able to count on from Baghdad. As Joshua Kurlantzick of The Washington Times reported last week, the last payment from Baghdad to a terrorist’s family came a week before the start of the U.S.-led campaign that ousted Saddam. On Tuesday, Israel provided an illustration of its own determination to help Mr. Abbas take on the radicals: Naval commandos seized a ship in the Mediterranean near Haifa carrying weaponry and bomb-making equipment to Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. One of the occupants of the boat was a Hezbollah bombmaking expert who reportedly had been dispatched to teach his craft to Gaza Palestinians.

For his part, Mr. Abbas has been meeting with Hamas in an effort to dissuade them from continuing attacks on Israel. A senior Palestinian official told the New York Times on Friday that Mr. Abbas pointed to the American victory in Iraq, and current pressure on Syria and Iran to halt terrorism, and bluntly asked Hamas leaders if they thought they were immune from all of this.

The United States can do more to make it easier for Mr. Abbas to take on the rejectionists. For starters, it can lean on Egypt to do a better job patrolling its border with Gaza to prevent explosives and other weapons from being smuggled in. It can press the “moderate” government of Saudi Arabia to stop paying its own stipends to suicide bombers. And Washington can make it clear to other Western governments that if they really want to help Mr. Abbas, a relative moderate, they should stop paying visits to Yasser Arafat, who continues to work behind the scenes to undermine the new Palestinian prime minister at every turn.

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