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Abbas needs his 'Altalena'

01/21/2006

The terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, Thursday, Jan. 19, reminds us again of the Palestinian part of the mess that is the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict. Ten years ago, in the first week of January 1996, at a time of calm and renewed hopes for peace, Prime Minister Shimon Peres made the fateful decision for the Shin Bet to "off" Yihya Ayyash, the notorious "engineer"- the Hamas inventor of the suicide belt. This event led directly to a wave of savage attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in the midst of an election campaign, which lost Peres his 20 point lead and for Benjamin Netanyahu to eventually emerge victorious, fatally slowing the Oslo peace process to an agonizing crawl.

Both sides have evinced patterns of action and inaction that amount to a dialectic of death and repression. Israel tends to over-rely on military action and repression. The Palestinians time and again choose and fall victim to violent tactics that boomerang against their interests. The conflict began this way in 1947 when Palestinian forces rejected the UN partition plan and attempted to destroy the Yishuv (Jewish community), a half year prior to the invasion of Israel by outside Arab armies following Israel's declaration of statehood in May 1948. These patterns again took hold with the Palestinians' destruction of the peace process through launching the "Al-Aksa Intifada," in late September 2000.

Popular understandings of this period are faulty: Arafat's Palestinian Authority did not exactly "reject" Ehud Barak's offers at Camp David - negotiations continued on and off through the aborted effort at Taba in January 2001. Barak's negotiating positions were not as "generous" as believed- but they did mark a departure from precedent in offering Palestinian sovereignty in parts of East Jerusalem and a withdrawal from most, although not all, of the West Bank.

Israeli police and security forces over-reacted in killing seven rioters at Al-Aksa (protesting Sharon's provocative visit to Al-Aksa the day before) as they stoned worshipers at the Western Wall; and a few weeks later, police shockingly killed 13 Israeli-Palestinians, Arab citizens of Israel. We also know that efforts by Israeli doves in October 2000 (including by Meretz MK Abu Vilan and Gershon Baskin) to get Arafat to use his power to stop the Intifada, fell on deaf ears. And that Arafat, not to be outdone by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, funded and verbally encouraged terrorist attacks by Fatah's Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades.

I'm sorry to recount this history, but I must emphasize that following in Arafat's bloody wake, Mahmoud Abbas's peace-oriented leadership of the Palestinian Authority must make meaningful and visible efforts to move against the forces of terror and anarchy that apparently reign in the Gaza Strip and in much of the West Bank.

Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, is a staunch Palestinian-American advocate of a peaceful two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. He addressed the Meretz USA board on January 10. During the Q & A with Dajani, I asked him what prevents the PA from moving militarily against the Islamic Jihad (the group that perpetrated the Tel Aviv bombing and most Palestinian violations of the current ceasefire), given that it's so much weaker than Hamas- much smaller and enjoying little popular support. I also asked what the PA needs from the US and/or Israel to disarm Hamas.

Mr. Dajani answered sincerely but disturbingly that Abbas does not move against Islamic Jihad because it is sponsored by Iran, and Abbas fears assassination if he actively opposes an ally of Iran. In terms of disarming Hamas, Dajani said that PA security forces are woefully outgunned, but that even with resupply, he says that the Palestinians have no stomach for civil war. For this reason, he says that Abbas is sensibly following a strategy of coopting Hamas into the political process.

I understand this approach toward Hamas, even if I am impatient and suspicious of it. But Abbas's failure to act against Islamic Jihad, and other violent gangs that terrorize the Palestinian people and undermine a renewed peace process with Israel by launching attacks, clouds the possibility of progress toward peace. Abbas needs an "Altalena" moment - recalling Ben-Gurion's decision to sink the Irgun gun-running ship when the Irgun refused to give up its cargo. This demonstration of Ben-Gurion's seriousness in enforcing "one authority and one gun" for the new State of Israel- underscored by the loss of lives on both sides (14 Irgun and four Palmach fighters) - persuaded Begin and Shamir, commanders respectively of the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang) to subordinate and integrate their forces within the new national army. This wise and courageous decision by David Ben-Gurion made it possible for Israel to emerge both as a free and democratic state and as the strongest military power in the region. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, Abbas is no Ben-Gurion.

Ralph Seliger

Ralph Seliger is editor of ISRAEL HORIZONS, the publication of Meretz USA.

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