Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will soon travel to Washington. Though his electoral victory wasn’t devoid of irregularities, it wasn’t the “landslide” it has sometimes been described as. Only a minority of those eligible to vote actually voted for him. But the very fact that he did not obtain the 99 percent customary in Arab states makes his victory more credible.

The sigh of relief at the disappearance of Yasser Arafat was audible around the world, including not a few Palestinians, but before long many people will ask: “Will the real Mahmoud Abbas please stand up!” In recent years Mr. Abbas had been at loggerheads with Mr. Arafat, coming out against the “armed” intifada — not apparently because he deemed the killing of innocent men, women and children wrong in principle — but because “it hurt the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the world.”

During his election campaign Mr. Abbas made conflicting statements — disclaiming terrorism on the one hand, praising its perpetrators on the other hand, calling Israel the “Zionist enemy.” Though such talk was attributed, especially by foreign observers, to campaign rhetoric — experience has shown that it is only that which Arab leaders say in Arabic to their own crowds that counts — not statements aimed at the foreign media.

Mr. Abbas’ own history with regard to terrorism is checkered. Not only was he one of the founders in 1964 (that is, before the Six Day War) of the Palestine Liberation Organization — an umbrella organization of the different Palestinian terrorist groups, including Fatah, his and Mr. Arafat’s home base — but he also played a part in the raid, 30 years ago, on the Ma’alot school in northern Israel, in which 26 school children were brutally murdered.

More worrying in the present context is that not only hasn’t there been even a moment’s lull in terrorist activity since his election, but over the weekend six Israeli civilians were murdered while moving supplies to the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip — and by whom? By a group that included the so-called Al-Aqsa Martyrs, a branch of Mahmoud Abbas’ very own Fatah organization, led by people who a few days before had carried him on their shoulders in the West Bank city of Nablus. The terrorists were allowed to move unimpeded through areas controlled by Mr. Abbas’ security services.

Was he directly involved in this outrage? Of course not (though he took his time before, somewhat half-heartedly, condemning it). But one may legitimately ask: Is it that he just doesn’t have the authority to stop the ongoing terror, or is he continuing Mr. Arafat’s double-game — talking peace on the one hand and tolerating (in Mr. Arafat’s case, often instigating) terror on the other hand? He has said that he would seek to “persuade” the Palestinian factions to halt attacks. Will it thus be Arafatism without Arafat? OK, many will say: “So Mr. Abbas isn’t exactly a knight in shining armor, but he is surely better than Yasser Arafat (who isn’t?). That’s what you got.”

True, he may indeed be more pragmatic, but this doesn’t mean that his ultimate aims are different from those of Mr. Arafat. Mr. Abbas is on record that he would not consent to any compromise going beyond what Yasser Arafat had rejected at Camp David with then-President Clinton and Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak — that is, compromise on the so-called right of return of Palestinian refugees, compromise on Jerusalem or compromise on the future borders. Thus, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier is wrong if he believes, or pretends to believe, that this is the moment to proceed straight toward final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

In fact, this would be a sure-fire recipe for once again derailing the prospects for peace. Over-reaching, as with the ill-fated Oslo agreements, once again means not reaching anything.

The only game in town is still President Bush’s road map for peace in the Middle East and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. Everything now depends on Mr. Abbas understanding that the burden of proof rests squarely on his shoulders: Without stopping terrorism, without wide-ranging reforms, including financial reforms — nothing will be gained. His first step should be to deploy his 30,000-strong security force in the areas from which rockets are being fired at Israel on a daily basis. One may assume that this will also be the clear message that the new Palestinian president will hear from his hosts when he comes to Washington: Cooperate with Israel in implementing disengagement — and the United States will support you. But only if it feels certain that you are genuinely committed to do what you have promised.

Zalman Shoval is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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