Last Chance for Abbas

When Mohammad Abbas was elected Prime Minister, Israeli officials believed he was someone they could work with, because he was prepared to accept Israel as a neighbor. Unfortunately, he squandered his first seven months as president, proving unable to maintain order in the increasingly lawless Palestinian Authority, and unwilling to fulfill his road map obligation to stop terror. Abbas teeters on the brink of irrelevancy to the peace process, but has a second chance courtesy of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

Once Israeli civilians and troops are completely out of the Gaza Strip in a few weeks, Abbas will have perhaps another six months to demonstrate the leadership necessary to prove to Israelis that he is a partner who is not only interested in peace, but capable of delivering the calm Israel will require to make any further territorial compromises on the West Bank. Abbas must now put authority into the Palestinian Authority by establishing that his government is the legitimate ruler of Gaza and that he will not permit the existence of militias or the illegal possession of arms by Palestinians.

Abbas cannot afford to co-opt Hamas or other terrorist groups that remain committed to a war of liberation. While he continues to say that he is unwilling to take up arms against his fellow Palestinians, the militants have already used their arms against him, undermining his authority within the PA as well as his credibility with Israel and the United States.

It is now in the Palestinians’ interest to prevent any provocation that would cause Israel to take any measures against Gaza. This is a crucial test for Abbas, and it must be passed if negotiations are to proceed. The resumption of violence will give Prime Minister Sharon all the justification he needs to delay implementation of the road map, which calls first and foremost for an end to terror and the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure throughout the PA.

While cessation of violence is the sin qua non for Israelis to continue negotiations, the key for Palestinians is to see their lives improve. With Israel completely out of Gaza, there are no more excuses for Abbas not to upgrade the conditions of the people. Israel’s control of the airspace and seaport -- both of which will be relaxed if terror is controlled – will create some hardship, but Israel also wants to see Gaza thrive and has agreed to facilitate the movement of goods. In addition, international aid will flood into Gaza to support economic development.

One immediate, highly visible test for Abbas will be whether he builds high-rise residences on the rubble of the settlements to house some of the 470,000 refugees in camps he controls. Until now, even after receiving $6 billion in international aid, Arafat and Abbas refused to create permanent housing for the refugees, preferring instead to use them as pawns to promote the image of Palestinians as victims. If, however, several thousand Gaza refugees are living in apartments six months from now, and other economic improvements are made, Palestinians will see that peace has tangible benefits.

The great danger is that the Palestinians will delude themselves, and believe the specious rhetoric of Hamas, which suggests that Israel was driven out of Gaza by terror and can now be forced from the West Bank with more violence. This was the miscalculation that brought about the Palestinian War of 2000-2005. As in past Arab-Israeli wars, the Arabs were beaten decisively, thousands of Palestinians mere killed or wounded, and their economy was shattered. Israel was not driven out. As in earlier wars, Israel could have stayed in Gaza, but came to the realization that it did not need the territory for its security. In fact, no Israeli government ever intended to incorporate the Gaza Strip into Israel.

Judea and Samaria are completely different, with undeniable historic-religious significance and profound strategic importance. While more Israeli towns will now be within rocket range of Gaza, territorial compromises on the West Bank will put the industrial and civilian heart of Israel at risk.

Israel may eventually withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank, for the same reason it is leaving Gaza, namely the need to remain a democratic Jewish state (an impossibility if the territories are annexed). The security fence line, after incorporating the major settlement blocs, could ultimately become the border. If the Palestinians want to have more say over their fate than they did in Gaza, Abbas must make the Gaza experiment a success. Only then will Israelis believe they have a partner with whom they can discuss mutually agreeable borders, refugees, and Jerusalem.