The Palestinians’ Lincoln Moment

President Bush has now made clear what Israel has said from the beginning of the peace process with the Palestinians, that no progress can be made, and no movement by Israel on contentious issues such as settlements can be expected, unless the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in their midst.

Many people had high hopes that Abu Mazen would take the necessary measures, but he said from the outset of his brief tenure as prime minister that he would not risk a civil war by confronting the terrorists. Predictably, his lack of leadership brought the road map to a dead end and left Abu Mazen as nothing more than a footnote in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His successor, Abu Ala, immediately said he would pursue the same policy toward the extremists and thereby set himself up to become a historical footnote as well.

While it is understandable that the Palestinians would not want to engage in internecine warfare, the reality is they no longer have any choice. This is their Lincoln moment when they must choose between a more perfect Palestinian union living in peace beside Israel or a fractured people condemned to statelessness by the terrorists in their midst.

The Palestinians have been looking for shortcuts, but none exist. They cannot blame Ariel Sharon or any Israeli leader because no one in Israel will make any significant concessions so long as the violence continues.

Israel already tried taking the advice of the State Department Arabists who insist that negotiations should continue regardless of the level of violence. Following the Oslo agreements, Israel withdrew from roughly 80% of the Gaza Strip and more than 40% of the West Bank, with the expectation of withdrawing further. Approximately 98% of the Palestinians in the territories were under the direct responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, but the process stopped when it became clear to Israelis of all political stripes that the bargain they had made to trade land for peace had been converted by the Palestinians into an unacceptable exchange of land for terror.

Israel still did not give up the hope for peace. In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a dramatic offer to withdraw from roughly 96% of the West Bank and dismantle dozens of settlements, withdraw from 100% of the Gaza Strip, and allow the Palestinians to create a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Today, many Palestinian leaders recognize they missed a historic opportunity by rejecting the deal, a decision that told Israelis that offering the Palestinians everything they claimed they wanted was not enough. This perception was reinforced when the Palestinians escalated the violence that has now claimed the lives of nearly 900 Israelis.

Just as Lincoln had the difficult choice of abolishing the scourge of slavery or risking the union, so too do the Palestinians face a choice of ending terror or losing the hope of independence.

Whatever one may think of Israel’s policy of targeted killings, the question that should be asked is, Why aren’t those terrorists in jail? Why is the head of Hamas, who openly claims responsibility for the suicide bombings that have murdered hundreds of innocent Israelis, allowed to remain free?

The media has created the impression that the Islamic radicals are too numerous to be defeated; however, the actual number of armed “militants” is small. Yes, Hamas and Islamic Jihad may have popular support, especially in Gaza, but the nearly 40,000 Palestinians in the various security services created by Yasser Arafat would have no trouble taking care of the terrorists if they chose to do so. They know where they live and hot to deal with them.

Incidentally, Israel faced its own Lincoln moment soon after declaring independence. There were dissident Jewish groups that were unwilling to accept the new state’s central authority. The leader of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, understood that the nation could not survive if it was not united, so when Menachem Begin’s Irgun tried to bring a shipload of arms ashore, Ben-Gurion ordered the ship sunk. Though Jews were forced to shoot their fellow Jews, the order was given and the Irgun ultimately gave up its arms and its members became part of the new Israeli army.

By contrast, instead of sinking a ship that threatened the peace process with Israel, Yasser Arafat ordered a ship laden with 50 tons of arms, the Karine-A, to escalate the Palestinians’ capability to make war.

Israel will face another Lincoln moment if the Palestinians respond to theirs. If the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist network, as they promised to do both at Oslo and in the road map, then Israel will have to make tough decisions regarding the settlements. Israelis will have to decide if their democracy can be preserved without dismantling some number of Jewish towns and villages. All indications are that most Israelis, including the present prime minister, are prepared to face that Lincolnesque choice, but not before the Palestinians stop the terror.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the Palestinian equivalent of al-Qaeda, and they cannot be allowed to continue to defeat the will of the average Palestinians who want to see the conflict with Israel resolved. If no Palestinian leader is prepared to take the necessary steps, and none can so longer as Yasser Arafat is around, then the people themselves must decide that the time has come to put the terrorists out of business.