- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Authority’s president, is expected to go to Washington in a few weeks’ time. He would have been a welcome guest there — even if it were for the mere fact that he isn’t Yasser Arafat. But another fact working in his favor certainly is that he was elected to his post in a reasonably democratic election — in a situation where most players in the Arab world — as the Financial Times put it last week, “appear to believe the thinnest of democratic veneers will suffice.”

“Abbas will find plenty of sympathy and goodwill in Washington — but frankly, he isn’t taken very seriously there,” I was told a few weeks ago, when visiting the nation’s capital. Some of my interlocutors explained this apparent paradox by saying that while Mr. Abbas may not be ideal, “he is the best thing we got” — especially in view of what’s happening, or rather not happening, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. And besides, they add, with the administration facing problems with its domestic agenda there is more and more emphasis on advancing foreign-policy goals — especially in the Middle East.

The U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, stated only last week: “I think the biggest test [i.e. for the administration] is the Middle East and the evolution of a stable and democratic Middle East. That’s really going to be the historical test.” Thus with the situation in Iraq still looking far from being resolved, it stands to reason that the focus in Washington’s eyes will increasingly be on the chances for success in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Why then isn’t official Washington going to town about Mr. Abbas? The answer is that America knows what Israel also knows, namely that the above so far has been a disappointment. Quite simply, he doesn’t deliver the goods. On the one hand, he tries to shortcut the stages of the road-map, thus in effect underwriting its failure — and on the other hand he cuddles Hamas instead of acting resolutely to control it.

What’s more, by granting Hamas (and to a lesser extent the Iranian-directed Islamic Jihad) political legitimacy without requiring them to disarm, he has created a situation, similar to the one with Hezbollah in Lebanon (and the IRA in Ulster), of fully armed militias becoming legitimate political players without relinquishing the option of terror and violence. All this takes place as massive smuggling of arms to the Palestinian territories, including anti-aircraft missiles, some reports say — going on unabated. And then there are the commitments that Mr. Abbas made at the Sharm El-Sheikh conference — i.e., to reform the Palestinian security organs, which proceed in a way that can be described as no better than desultory. For instance, in spite of official Palestinian statements to the contrary, hardly any arms have been collected.

Some will say that, considering realities on the ground and his own relative political weakness, Abu Mazen can’t do more than he does, but others believe his modus operandi to be part of a deliberate strategy with the purpose of maintaining the option of renewed terror for the day after disengagement. The aim? To exert pressure on public opinion, both inside Israel and abroad, in order to force Israel to make ever more far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Not unlike Arafat, Mr. Abbas would then assume a position of the innocent bystander: “It isn’t me, it’s the Hamas — and, anyway, it’s all the fault of the Israelis for not being more forthcoming.” In his recent (not unfriendly to the Palestinians) article in the New York Times Magazine (March 13), James Bennet, the paper’s former correspondent in Israel, left little doubt as to what Mr. Abbas’ real positions are: “Abbas’s approach is different, but his stated goals are like Arafat’s … Abbas also rejected the deal that Barak (and Clinton) offered at Camp David (i.e., 97 percent of the “territories, most of East Jerusalem — without giving up the so-called right of return and without agreeing to an “end to conflict”). Needless to say that all of the above, and even the creation of a Palestinian state in all the land beyond the former Green Line, would still fall short of what Abu Mazen’s ally-cum-rival, the Hamas, aim for: the destruction of the state of Israel.

The principal importance of Mr. Abbas’ trip to Washington is that he should be told in no uncertain terms that there is no way that he will be permitted to play or even condone Yasser Arafat’s double game of mixing diplomacy with terror — and that with all the goodwill exhibited toward him, what really counts is honoring his commitments.

Ambassador Zalman Shoval is a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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