The Magazine

A Real Peace Process

May 5, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 33 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY president Yasser Arafat doesn't yield easily. He responds only to force and pressure, never to appeasement, unilateral concessions, or "confidence-building" gestures. The good news is that arm-twisting has finally been applied--by President Bush, Europeans, and Egypt--and Arafat has yielded twice in ways he didn't want to. The first was to name a Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, the second to compromise with Abbas last week on a cabinet that includes several Arafat critics. These concessions do not mean peace is at hand. There is much more to do and much more pressure to be applied.

Start with Arafat himself. He remains the Palestinian strongman, able to fire Abbas or thwart his initiatives. There will be no peace with Israel so long as Arafat retains power. He is the fellow who turned down in early 2001 a settlement in which Palestinians would have gotten 98 percent of the West Bank, half of Jerusalem, a land bridge between Gaza and the West Bank, and the elimination of a host of Israeli settlements. Sadly, the just-completed negotiations with Abbas over his cabinet sent the message to the world that, still, nothing important can happen in Palestinian affairs unless it goes through Arafat.

Who can change this? President Bush has already done his part by announcing, in his speech on Israel and the Palestinians last June 24, a ban on American dealings with Arafat. This weakened Arafat, but didn't cripple him. Now it's time for the Europeans, especially British prime minister Tony Blair, and the Arab states (especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan) to do their part. They should stop supporting Arafat. Blair, in particular, should end his chummy phone relationship with Arafat. The Arab states, if they're sincere in wanting a peace accord, can help by sending no more money to Arafat and refusing to treat him as the man to see among Palestinians. If they walk away from Arafat, he will quickly fade.

More important, they must embrace Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen). For the Arab states, this means declaring support for him in public. Dennis Ross, the former Middle East negotiator, has suggested the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians issue a joint statement with Abbas to declare undying support for the Palestinian cause. But the statement would insist the cause be pursued the legitimate way--without terrorism or violence--and include political and economic reforms.

Israel, too, has a vested interest in Abbas, since the alternative is Arafat. Israel can help, but only if Abbas meets his obligation to crack down on terrorist attacks against Israelis by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades. The members of the "quartet"--the United States, United Nations, European Union, Russia--must hold Abbas accountable for suppressing terrorism, which is part of their "road map" toward a peace settlement in three years.

As Abbas works to improve security for Israelis, Israel can reciprocate by making life better for Palestinians. Without that, Abbas will never gain real authority among Palestinians, and Arafat will find himself in a still stronger position. What could the Israelis do? Lots of things: Reduce checkpoints, allow more Palestinian workers into Israel, channel resources to productive Palestinian enterprises, and release some of the 5,000 to 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Discussions between Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, private or public, can work out exactly what each side should expect from the other in coming weeks. For Israel, it's a reduced threat of terrorism, for the Palestinians an easing of Israeli control.

Bush has a significant role to play. He's already done the hard part by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Now he needs to keep up the pressure on Middle East governments that support terrorism and Islamic extremism and block the emergence of democracy. That means, for starters, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Maybe we're wrong, but the president seemed too hasty in praising Syria for aiding the United States by promising to turn over Saddam's henchmen who seek sanctuary. That's fine, as far as it goes. But more should be required of Syria, such as ending support for Hezbollah, the world's largest terrorist organization, and tossing out of Damascus the 10 terrorist groups with headquarters there. One result will be a weakening of Palestinian terrorists, who now depend on Syria's aid.

Years ago, the late Abba Eban said the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But that outcome is not inevitable. As a new prime minister without Arafat's bloody history but with tangible support from European and Arab leaders, Abbas could make a dramatic difference. But only if people who acted wrongly in the past--by backing Arafat, for example--do the right thing now.

--Fred Barnes, for the Editors