plain-speaking abbas, by evelyn gordon

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    Jul. 28, 2003
    Plain-speaking Abbas, By Evelyn Gordon

    At his meeting today with President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly plans to talk about deeds: the Palestinian Authority's failure to begin dismantling terrorist organizations, the fact that these groups have been rearming and recruiting new members under cover of the truce.

    No one would deny that these are important topics. But if there is one thing that the Oslo process proved, it is that words are often no less important than deeds. Which is why, if I were setting the prime minister's White House agenda, three statements made last week would receive prominent billing.

    The first was made by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in a July 20 interview with The New York Times. Asked about Israel's refusal to release prisoners with "blood on their hands," Abbas replied that this was unacceptable. "We were in a war," he explained and in war, all prisoners are freed once hostilities end." Other members of the Palestinian leadership have clarified that they want some 3,000 prisoners released now including about 450 involved in terror attacks prior to Oslo plus a written promise that all the rest will be released when a final-status accord is signed.

    Abbas's statement is tremendously important, because it means that even he the man who publicly denounced terrorism at Aqaba due to Bush's arm-twisting continues to believe that deliberately blowing up schoolbuses full of children, or elderly people attending a Passover seder is a legitimate form of warfare that entitles its practitioners to return home in triumph. Furthermore, he has no qualms about saying so, in English, to America's newspaper of record making him even more brazen than Yasser Arafat, who usually confined his defenses of terrorism to Arabic.

    One thing Israelis learned from Oslo, however, is that when Arafat lauded terrorists as legitimate freedom fighters this was not mere idle talk; it played a major role in creating the climate that made the intifada possible one in which, according to repeated polls, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians not only support suicide bombings but view them as a legitimate accompaniment to peace talks.

    Thus unless Abbas stops echoing Arafat's praises and starts educating his people to understand that terrorism is unacceptable, the next Israeli-Palestinian disagreement and there will be many over the course of negotiations will almost certainly result in yet another outbreak of lethal violence. Abbas may not even want it but having encouraged his people to consider it legitimate, he is unlikely to be able to stop it.

    The second statement was made by Abbas at a Cairo press conference on July 22. There, asked by reporters whether he ever intends to fulfill his road map obligation of dismantling the terrorist organizations, he replied bluntly: "Cracking down on Hamas, Jihad and the Palestinian organizations is not an option at all."

    Privately, of course, Abbas is telling Bush that he is simply not strong enough to act against the terrorists yet. But one lesson Israelis learned from Oslo is that when Palestinian leaders publicly declare that they have no intention of honoring certain sections of a signed agreement, they mean it. Indeed, such declarations tend to be self-fulfilling even if the leader changes his mind, because it is difficult to carry out an unpopular move if one has not prepared one's people for this necessity.

    To add insult to injury, this public disavowal of Abbas's road map obligations comes as both he and Bush are demanding a series of Israeli concessions not even mentioned in that document that will make it easier for terrorists to strike from freezing construction of the separation fence to immediately releasing terrorist trainers and financiers (who, bizarrely, are defined as not having blood on their hands).

    This behavior, like Abbas's praise of terrorists as honorable soldiers, does little to bolster Israeli confidence that a deal with him will be worth any more than a deal with Arafat. And without such confidence no deal will be possible at all.

    The final noteworthy statement relates to Israel's decision to allow small groups of Jews to visit though not pray on the Temple Mount. Arafat informed the local diplomatic corps that this was "a crime;" Abbas, at his Cairo press conference, termed it "provocative." In both cases, the message was identical: In the eyes of the Palestinian leadership, Jews have no right even to visit their holiest site the focus of their prayers for more than 2,000 years.

    One lesson that Israelis learned from Oslo, however, is that no agreement will ever be possible until Palestinian leaders are prepared to publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of Jewish interest in this site. Indeed, according to Shlomo Ben-Ami, foreign minister and senior negotiator in Ehud Barak's government, the two sides were unable to reach a deal on Jerusalem even after Barak conceded the entire mount to the Palestinians because Arafat was unwilling to make the minimal gesture of acknowledging in the agreement that "the site is sacred to the Jews."

    Thus as long as Arafat and Abbas continue to tell their people that Jews have no right even to set foot on this site, it is difficult to believe that this "peace process" will be any different from the last one: a series of unilateral Israeli concessions culminating in an explosion of bloodshed when the moment of truth arrives.

    Sharon's reluctance to point out that Bush's fair-haired boy has feet of clay is perhaps understandable: The president would undoubtedly dismiss such "trivialities" impatiently. But Oslo proved that such "trivialities" are precisely what bloody wars are made of and if Sharon does not want to be remembered as the man responsible for the third intifada, he must begin making this clear to Bush now.
 
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