- - Tuesday, June 7, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

JERUSALEM — The French government last week initiated a new “peace process.” Ignoring the butchery underway in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, as well as the threat Iran now poses to the Middle East, their focus is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The French initiative could turn out to be a waste of time, one more round of diplomatic blather and posturing. Let’s hope so. The alternative is that it will do further damage to both Israelis and Palestinians.

Envoys from 26 nations attended the opening “summit” in Paris last Friday. They agree that a “two-state solution” is the answer. They do not agree on the question. Is the problem that a Palestinian state does not exist? Or is the problem that a Jewish state does?

There are currently two Palestinian entities. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a designated terrorist organization and branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas leaders are openly committed to exterminating Israel and slaughtering its Jewish citizens.

That is not a negotiating position from which they can fall back. It’s in the Hamas Charter and it’s based on their reading of Islamic scripture. They believe only Muslims may rule in any lands conquered by Muslims at any point in history. (And, in their eyes, not all Muslims are equally qualified to rule: In the Sinai, Hamas is widely believed to be cooperating with the Islamic State in its war against the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose opposition to Islamism is unequivocal.)

The West Bank is governed by the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas serves as its president. As I am not the first to point out, he is currently in the 11th year of a four-year term.

At 81, Mr. Abbas is reportedly not in good health. It is unclear how much longer he intends to remain in office. It also is unclear who will succeed him or how such a succession will come about.

He may be considering his legacy. I suspect he wants to be remembered as a Palestinian leader who steadfastly refused to make peace with the hated Zionists. I suspect he would not want to be remembered as a Palestinian traitor — which is how Hamas, Iran’s rulers and others would characterize him were he to sign a document declaring an end to the conflict and leaving Israelis relatively secure within defensible borders.

How will the participants in the French peace process deal with these complexities? They won’t. They’ll pretend Hamas is irrelevant. They’ll pretend Mr. Abbas represents the will of the Palestinian people. They’ll ask little or nothing of him since there is little or nothing he can deliver.

Instead, they’ll insist that the central impediment to peace is the Israeli “occupation.” They may even contend that Gaza remains “occupied.” In fact, it has been 11 years since Israelis withdrew from Gaza — a territory, by the way, that Israel conquered from Egypt, not from Palestinians, in the defensive war of 1967.

Two years after Israel’s departure, Hamas took power in a violent coup against the Palestinian Authority. Hamas soon began launching missiles into Israel. More recently, Hamas has been constructing terrorist tunnels into Israel. One result: a 51-day war between Hamas and Israel two summers ago.

As for the West Bank, Jordan’s Arab Legion seized it in 1948. Jewish communities were forced out. Jewish religious sites were desecrated or destroyed. In 1967, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol asked King Hussein not to join Egypt, Syria and Iraq in what would become known as the Six-Day War, vowing: “If you don’t intervene, you will suffer no consequences.”

But the King felt obliged to show solidarity with his Arab brethren. So, on June 5, 1967, his artillery batteries in the West Bank began raining shells on Israelis. When the smoke cleared, Israel’s forces were in possession of the territory, including east Jerusalem.

In 2000, 2001 and 2008, Israeli leaders made Palestinian leaders offers that would have given them a state of their own in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem. What Israel wanted in return: recognition that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. Palestinian leaders declined. They made no counteroffers.

Suppose the French peace process leads to intense international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. Suppose Israel succumbs to that pressure. What prevents Hamas from taking over as it did in Gaza? Israel’s presence in the West Bank, in quiet cooperation with Palestinian security forces, protects and defends the Palestinian Authority. Those meeting in Paris last week should know that — even if discussing it is taboo.

Because the West Bank is adjacent to Israel’s largest population centers as well as its only international airport, missiles and mortars fired from its hills, properly called the Judean Mountains, would do substantial damage — much worse than anything Hamas has been able to achieve from Gaza. Israelis would have no choice but to respond militarily.

The West Bank today is no paradise. But it is not a war zone. It has a growing economy. Ramallah, Jericho and Hebron are vibrant cities. There’s also Rawabi — a strikingly beautiful new community being developed by the visionary Palestinian-American entrepreneur Bashar Masri. He hopes to provide homes for young, well-educated Palestinians whose main concerns are career and family, not jihad.

Have we not learned how quickly Middle Eastern societies can crumble? Do we not understand what has happened — what is still happening — in Aleppo, Fallujah, Raqqa and Sana’a? Should the French initiative lead to a similar outcome, will any of the participants at the Paris summit accept responsibility? Will any shed salty tears?

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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