- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

Mahmoud Abbas’s resignation as Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister demonstrates that, at a minimum, the road map for Middle East peace put forward by President Bush is in serious danger of collapse. In attempting to implement the road map and deal directly with Mr. Abbas, the administration has tried to sideline PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, whose active encouragement of terrorism over the past 35 months effectively destroyed the peace process which began at Oslo just over a decade ago. Instead, Mr. Arafat has once again demonstrated that he retains sufficient power to sabotage any Palestinian who appears genuinely interested in reaching a peace agreement with Israel.

It is still possible that, under pressure from Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt, Mr. Arafat could bring Mr. Abbas (or some other prominent Palestinian) back as prime minister, and that he would be given some substantive power to negotiate and implement the Palestinians’ central responsibility under the road map: purging terrorist organizations from their midst. But, based on what’s taken place since Mr. Arafat named Mr. Abbas prime minister in April, there is little room for optimism on this score.

Over the past 35 months, terrorist groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Tanzim (the latter two affiliated with Mr. Arafat’s own Fatah organization) have been responsible for more than 100 suicide bombings against Israel, as well as thousands of shootings and other deadly attacks. Under the road map put forward by Mr. Bush and agreed to by Mr. Abbas, the PA agreed to disarm these terrorists. But Mr. Abbas refused to do this, opting instead for a policy of trying to, in essence, cajole these groups into stopping the violence. The policy was a failure, as demonstrated most powerfully by Hamas’ Aug. 19 bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed 22 people. In the wake of that bombing — and Israel’s resumption of targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders — Mr. Abbas appeared to realize that his credibility had seriously eroded, and he demanded that the Palestinian parliament give him the authority to rein in groups like Hamas. When it became obvious that, thanks to Mr. Arafat’s machinations, he would receive no such authority, Mr. Abbas resigned.

The Palestinians are at a crossroads. Three years ago, according to President Clinton’s senior Mideast peace envoy, Dennis Ross, they could have gotten themselves a contiguous state which included 97 percent of the land area of the West Bank. Mr. Arafat rejected this, and initiated the war which continues to this day. Mr. Bush’s road map effectively guarantees the Palestinians a state within two years if they agree to put an end to terrorism. Thus far, they’ve failed to do this, and so long as leaders like Mr. Arafat give free rein to rejectionists like Hamas, the Palestinian people will continue to be cruelly cheated out of opportunities to create an independent state of their own. The challenge for U.S. policy-makers is to find a Palestinian leader willing and able to eradicate the terrorist organizations and make a two-state solution possible.

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