Wednesday, May 25, 2005

President Bush’s meeting today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas comes at a very difficult time in negotiations between the PA and Israel. Since his June 24, 2002, speech outlining a new vision for Mideast peace, which would include the establishment of an independent, democratic Palestinian state next to Israel, Mr. Bush has made improving conditions for the Palestinians a top foreign-policy priority.

The Bush administration has pledged $350 million to help the Palestinians build the institutions of a democratic state. Washington has also sent Gen. William Ward to the region to help Mr. Abbas rebuild his security forces so that they will be able to do their essential job: fighting terrorists and lawless gangs based in the West Bank and Gaza that target Israelis and Palestinians alike.

The administration has worked hard to bolster Mr. Abbas, who — unlike his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, a man both Washington and Jerusalem concluded was hostile to any genuine peace with Israel — is still seen as someone interested in making peace. But responsible American and Israeli policy-makers will not continue to hold this belief forever if Mr. Abbas can’t take the most basic steps to rein in the terrorist groups. He has flatly refused to take any steps against Hamas, which is using the temporary quiet with Israel to stockpile a much more lethal arms infrastructure, particularly in Gaza.

In March, Israel and the PA reached agreement on a plan to deal with the problem of 495 fugitive Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. In stark contrast to Washington, which since September 11 has followed a policy of capturing or killing al Qaeda members across the globe, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed that Mr. Abbas could neutralize the terrorists in a different, much softer way: Instead of arresting them, the PA could take alternative steps like seizing their arms or confining them to the West Bank cities where they reside.

Fifty-two of the fugitives live in Tulkarm and Jericho, the first two cities Israel turned over to Mr. Abbas several months ago. While Mr. Abbas in the past few days has apparently begun to take some small steps toward dealing with this problem, he is nowhere near compliance with his promise to neutralize the 52 fugitives. Until Mr. Abbas does this, Israel will continue its postponement of its scheduled pullback from three other West Bank cities.

Mr. Sharon is preparing to release 400 additional Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, which would bring to 900 the number released since February. But none of this has persuaded Mr. Abbas to deal seriously with the terrorism problem. Earlier this month, Palestinian security chief Rashid Abu Shbak rejected Israel’s request to disarm the fugitives, saying, “We have no intention of withdrawing arms of resistance.”

This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Last week, Hamas, embroiled in an internal political dispute with the PA, fired approximately 80 rockets and mortars at Jewish towns in Gaza and Israel. Thus far, Israel has refrained from taking action to root out this terrorist threat. We expect that Mr. Bush will remind Mr. Abbas that this situation is intolerable, and that he would be making a grave mistake if he emulates Mr. Arafat.

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