- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

We fully appreciate the challenge facing Mahmoud Abbas in Sunday’s Palestinian elections. To win himself a mandate, a certain amount of Israel-bashing is to be expected. After all, Mr. Abbas’ political fate will be decided by a Palestinian electorate that has been inculcated with generations of anti-Israel hatred by Yasser Arafat and his predecessors. At the same time, assuming he wins at the polls on Sunday, Mr. Abbas will need to have a functioning relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, something that Mr. Arafat did everything to sabotage in the wake of the 1993 Oslo peace agreement.

Since Mr. Arafat’s death in November, there have been some encouraging developments, including Mr. Abbas’ call for a halt to rocket attacks launched by terrorist groups from the Gaza Strip. Several rejectionist groups denounced Mr. Abbas for criticizing the attacks. Mr. Sharon, who shunned Mr. Arafat, believes that Mr. Abbas is a dramatically different kind of man: a Palestinian nationalist who wants to reach a compromise with the Jewish state.

Unfortunately, in the days leading up to Sunday’s election, Mr. Abbas has grown increasingly strident in his criticism of Israel, while going to extraordinary lengths to curry favor with Palestinian rejectionists. Last week, for example, he met with Zakaria Zubeidi, the commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in a Jenin refugee camp — perhaps the terrorist epicenter of the West Bank. Mr. Zubeidi endorsed Mr. Abbas’ candidacy and hoisted Mr. Abbas on his shoulders, and Mr. Abbas suggested that he has no plans to disarm such organizations.

On Monday at a refugee camp in Gaza, Mr. Abbas defended the terrorists: “They are neither criminals nor murderers. They are fighting for the honorable lives of their Palestinian … brothers.” Mr. Abbas has also called for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their ancestral homes in what is today Israel — for Israelis, a political non-starter. On Tuesday, he denounced Israel as the “Zionist enemy.”

For his part, Mr. Sharon has reacted in a most statesmanlike way to Mr. Abbas’ broadsides. “I understand it’s the eve of an election,” he told columnist William Safire. “We do not interfere so as not to make it harder for him.”

Many of Mr. Sharon’s colleagues on the political right will not be as understanding. Mr. Abbas needs to tread very carefully.

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