A Bet on Mr. Abbas

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

FOLLOWING his meeting at the White House yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Bush boiled down his latest Middle East strategy to this: "Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad -- who's a good fellow -- will be strengthened to the point where they can lead Palestinians in a different direction." The salient word was "hope." While it's worth trying to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and his new government, the idea that the Palestinian president can create a strong new administration in the West Bank or vanquish the rival Hamas movement is probably wishful thinking.

Mr. Abbas has established himself in recent years as a moderate who supports a two-state peace settlement with Israel. He also has shown himself to be incapable of controlling the armed gangs in his own Fatah movement or purging the Palestinian Authority of rampant corruption and malfeasance. While the new government Mr. Abbas appointed last week -- in probable violation of Palestinian law -- is composed mostly of technocrats, men such as Salam Fayyad (Mr. Bush's "good fellow") are more popular in Washington than in the Palestinian territories. The embrace of Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert will lower rather than raise their standing among Palestinians unless they quickly deliver results.

Mr. Abbas might win some support by using Western aid to improve services and pay salaries. He could force reform on Fatah. But reports of his telephone conversation with Mr. Bush on Tuesday suggested he may mainly wait for Israel to make concessions, such as removing soldiers and settlers from the West Bank or negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state. While there are some steps Israel could and should take, such as releasing prisoners, this is more wishful thinking. Israel's security services fear that a reduction in West Bank checkpoints would lead quickly to terrorist attacks, while the politically enfeebled Mr. Olmert can hardly be expected to dismantle entrenched Jewish settlements or agree with Mr. Abbas on issues such as the final disposition of Jerusalem.

The most dangerous illusion to emerge from the U.S.-Israeli discussions is the idea that Hamas can be isolated in Gaza while Mr. Abbas is built up in the West Bank. The Palestinian president is unlikely to abandon the 1.5 million people of Gaza to a de facto military and economic siege. If he does, Hamas will use its own forces to ensure that the West Bank also is ungovernable or to start a new war with Israel. As repugnant as its terrorism and ideology are, Hamas won a free election and still has the support of a large part of the Palestinian population. It cannot be abolished by decree, and isolation will only make it more radical and more dependent on sponsors in Syria and Iran.

No serious peace process in the Middle East will be possible until Palestinians settle on a broadly representative leadership that is ready for compromise with Israel. This will take time, and it cannot be achieved by force or Western intervention. U.S. support for Mr. Abbas should be accompanied by realism about how much can be accomplished, especially in negotiations with Israel. The United States should continue to support humanitarian relief for Palestinians in Gaza and restrain Israel from measures such as cutting off power and water. Most urgently, U.S. diplomacy should be aimed at preventing still more bloodshed in the Middle East in the coming months -- in Gaza or in Lebanon.

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