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Jewish World Review July 25, 2003 / 25 Tamuz, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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‘The Obstacle is Terrorism’

Bush administration road map spin inspires hope — and cynicism | The Middle East peace process bumps back to the White House front burner this week with visits from Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

These visits will produce more of the sort of thing we are used to from the last decade of peace processing: photo ops and generalities. But with all of the talk about what Sharon and Abbas will or will not do, both are looking to Washington for answers.

The Palestinians, as always, believe that only the United States can deliver the Israeli concessions on prisoner releases, settlements, and ultimately, territory.

At the same time, the Israelis know that only the United States can force Abbas' pseudo-government to disarm and dismantle the infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism that reaches right up to the P.A.'s real power broker, Yasser Arafat. They place their hopes in the idea that George W. Bush still believes the Palestinians must renounce terror and adopt democracy before they can gain a state.

Who is right? That's a question to be answered in the coming year. But a conversation last week with a senior Bush administration official gave me some clues as to which direction Washington is heading.

It is, the official said, "a promising moment when both sides recognize that there has been real progress in the search for peace. The dynamic has changed." Progress on the ground

Beyond the atmospherics, the administration believes there has been real progress made in terms of the Palestinians actually renouncing terror and hatred, rather than just talking about it.

One point the official emphasized was that the incitement against Jews and Israelis on Palestinian television had decreased markedly in the last month of the cease-fire: "It needs to go down to zero, but the record so far is pretty good."

The White House has also invested heavily in the idea that Abbas and his new government can transform the confrontation. Even more to the point, so have the Israelis.

That's why Sharon has released Palestinians being held by Israel for involvement in terror activities, and is even contemplating freeing some with "blood on their hands," even though this is not required by the road map.

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The administration official was quick to point out that this was Israel's choice and not the result of American pressure. "We are not involved in those discussions. If there are people who are dangerous, we are not going to pressure Israel to undercut its security."

The logic behind all of this is that the only way Palestinians will be persuaded to support peace is that if they see Abbas has gained in prestige, and could be successful in giving them a better life.

But what, I asked, is the difference between this effort to bolster the shaky credibility of a Palestinian leadership and those undertaken by Bush's predecessor to shore up Arafat's prestige?

"It's who we are dealing with," the official answered. "Abbas and [new Palestinian Finance Minister] Salam Fayyad are people who the government of Israel believe it can usefully work with, and we believe we can work with them."

The official refused to comment on the Clinton administration's practice of whitewashing the Palestinians violence and incitement. But this source asserted that the new compliance regime set up under the authority of ambassador John Wolff would consist of "more than just watching and reacting."

Another difference is that in the post-Iraq-war era, Arab countries are starting to pay more lip service to Washington's demands that they cut back their support for terrorists. The official admitted that the rest of the Arab world remained the main source for incitement as well as for financing terror.

All of this was apparently part of a policy that stemmed from the president's June 24, 2002, speech, which was seen as a milestone in American foreign policy for its shift from pressure on Israel to some pressure on the Palestinians, including the requirement that they pick a new leader. The adoption of the road map had seemingly rendered that speech obsolete.


All of this is encouraging, but there is a huge problem lurking over all of it — the continuing presence of Arafat.

Despite the promotion of Abbas by Washington, Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinians in name and in practice. The Americans may hopes Abbas' deputy, Mohammed Dahlan will clean up the terrorists, but it is still Arafat who controls most of the P.A.'s "security" services. The terrorists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Arafat's own Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade have nothing to fear so long as this is the case.

On this point, the administration has no answer.

"To the extent that Arafat is involved, that is a bad thing," the official admitted. "That's why we are pressing the Europeans not to add to his influence, and [why we're] trying to help Abbas gain more and more recognition among Palestinians."

Yet Bush has had little success on this score, and there is no indication that Arafat's demise is on the horizon. The terrorists are using the three-month cease fire to rearm and refit, and Abbas is obviously unwilling to do anything about it.

That leaves the question of what Washington will do once their Abbas gambit f ails. Will they draw conclusions about the Palestinian commitment to Israel's destruction and walk away from a process in which they've invested so much? Or will they decide that there is no alternative, and then press ahead on a timetable for Palestinian statehood regardless of what the Palestinians are doing. "The cease-fire is not not enough. Dismantling [of terror groups] is required," the official answered.

"The president has been clear on this. There isn't going to be a Palestinian state if terrorism isn't defeated. The name of the document is a 'Performance-Based Road Map.' Dates are suggested in it, but the rapidity on which we advance depends on the rapidity that people meet their obligations." So should we be reassured?

Maybe a little bit.

But this new positive dynamic that they speak of is a lot more ephemeral than the terrorist infrastructure on the ground that remains in place. Nor do they have any real plan for dealing with Arafat. Puffing up Abbas will only go so far. At some point, he must confront Arafat, Hamas and the others.

If not, then all of the administration's ideas, like Abbas' speeches, will turn out to have been nothing more than spin.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here. This past month Mr. Tobin won first places honors in the American Jewish Press Association's Louis Rapaport Award for Excellence in Commentary as well as the Philadelphia Press Association's Media Award for top weekly columnist. Both competitions were for articles written in the year 2002.

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