Israel, the United States and most of the international community were pleased by the election of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli Prime Minister Sharon immediately congratulated Abbas and announced plans to meet with him. Even before this, high-level meetings have begun between the top advisers of both men and security cooperation has been renewed.
Expectations are high that Abbas can radically alter the policies of his predecessor, consolidate his power, reform the Palestinian Authority, and put an end to more than four years of senseless violence that has claimed too many innocent lives.
Abbas had a previous opportunity to deliver when he was appointed Prime Minister in 2003. He failed on all counts at that time, but most observers attributed this to the fact that Yasser Arafat retained ultimate control over the PA and Abbas was little more than a figurehead. Now, Abbas has no excuses.
No one should have any illusions about Abbas. He was the number two person in the PLO and a founder of the Fatah terrorist organization. It is possible to find many irredentist statements made in the past by the new President, some of which were uttered during his recent campaign. His uncompromising position on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, for example, bodes ill for negotiations. On the other hand, he was one of the Palestinian architects of the Oslo accords. He also demonstrated courage by criticizing the intifada, saying that violence has not helped the Palestinian cause, and declaring a readiness to make peace with Israel.
The first days of his regime were not encouraging, as mortars continued to be fired into Israel, and two terrorist attacks were perpetrated (one of which killed six Israeli civilians, two of whom were Arabs). These acts either were direct challenges to his leadership or an indication that Abbas has not abandoned the two-track policy of Arafat, namely, to talk about peace with the Western media while orchestrating a terror campaign against Israel.
Abbas has subsequently taken more aggressive steps to consolidate his power. He has been negotiating with Hamas to achieve a cease-fire. He ordered Palestinian security forces to stop attacks by Palestinian militants on Israelis and he sent a police contingent to the Gaza Strip to impose order. He also declared that only policemen and security personnel will be allowed to carry weapons.
Coexistence is impossible unless Palestinian violence stops. There can be no attacks on Jews anywhere, no mortars fired into Israel, and no incitement to violence. This is not a case of giving extremists a veto over negotiations; Israel has not said that Abbas must stop 100 percent of the incidents before it will talk, but Israel does insist that he demonstrate a 100 percent effort to stop them.
The media has created the false perception that the “militants” cannot be stopped because of their numbers. While it is true that the Islamic terrorist groups enjoy broad popular support, mainly in the Gaza Strip, the actual number of forces under arms is estimated to be no more than 1,500. Moreover, the terrorists’ identities and locations are known. The PA has an estimated 40,000 policemen and multiple security services. If Abbas is serious about establishing control of the PA, for the sake of his own authority and legitimacy, as well as to fulfill the road map commitments, he must use the resources at his command to disarm and arrest anyone who illegally possesses weapons and threatens or engages in violence.
Israel is being asked to make gestures to help Abbas; however, Israel owes him nothing. It is Abbas who must show that he has both the will and ability to reform the PA, to dismantle the terrorist networks, and to end the violence. Words are insufficient; he must take action. The agreements signed by the Palestinians are unequivocal about what is required of them; they cannot evade their responsibilities with conciliatory statements to the press in English or cease-fires with groups such as Hamas that remain committed to Israel’s destruction.
Though it has no obligation to do so, Israel has taken steps to show its goodwill, including facilitating the Palestinian elections (which international observers reported were unfettered by Israel), releasing prisoners, and withdrawing troops from parts of the territories. Israel has also said it is prepared to negotiate the disengagement rather than act unilaterally. A unity government was formed in January 2005 that now includes the Labor Party, which increases the flexibility Sharon will have to negotiate in the future.
Abbas has made a number of positive statements about ending violence and confiscating illegal weapons. We will know very quickly if he is serious. If within the next three months his deeds match his words, and violence is significantly reduced, it will indeed be possible to advance the peace process. If, however, he once again lacks either the will or the capability to control the PA, Israel will have to proceed with its disengagement and hope that another Palestinian leader emerges in the future with the courage and vision to make peace.