After Gaza Withdrawal, Quartet Gets Tougher on Palestinian Side

Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip already is paying diplomatic dividends, chief among them a clear call to the Palestinian Authority to disarm terrorists. A statement Tuesday by the Quartet, the body comprised of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations that is driving the Middle East peace process, was unequivocal about the need for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas to fulfill his commitments to take away terrorist groups’ guns.

“While the P.A. leadership has condemned violence and has sought to encourage Palestinian groups who have engaged in terrorism to abandon this course and engage in the democratic process, the Quartet further urges the Palestinian Authority to maintain law and order and dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure,” the Quartet said in a statement after the meeting.

Quartet representatives were more equivocal about Israel’s threat not to facilitate Palestinian elections in January if Hamas participates.

“It’s not that we are not going to let them have elections, but we will not provide them with any support,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a group of Jewish leaders in New York on Sunday.

That could mean a refusal to remove roadblocks and checkpoints or a refusal to allow Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem to vote.

“How can you have a terrorist group participate in elections and call it democracy?” said an Israeli official who asked not to be identified because Israel wants to avoid the appearance of interfering in internal Palestinian matters. “It’s an activist terrorist organization that calls for Israel’s destruction everyday — it’s not like this is academic.”

Asked at the Quartet press conference about Israel’s stance on P.A. elections, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, expressed understanding but suggested the matter was best left to the Palestinians.

“You cannot have kind of an armed option within the democratic process,” Rice said. “But we understand that the Palestinian political system is in transition, that it is in transition toward a democratic system, and that that has to be a Palestinian process.”

She later added, “We have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process.”

That difference hardly impinged on what otherwise was a week of diplomatic highs for the Israelis.

Sharon, who was applauded for a speech at the U.N. General Assembly that essentially said the ball is now in the Palestinian court, was praised by the Quartet as displaying “political courage.”

Sharon and his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, met with Arab and Islamic counterparts in the U.N. corridors, hearing echoes of a call that Israel long has made: It’s better to talk than not to talk.

The foreign minister of Qatar, which has hosted an Israeli trade mission since 1996, said Arab leaders were wrong in the past to say they never would make peace with Israel.

“The Arabs — some of them — they went too far with their people that they would not talk with the enemy by any way,” Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani said at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting last week. “There is no enemies and no friends, but there is always not only responsibilities, but interests.”

Also gratifying for the Israelis were U.N. calls on Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah, the terrorist group that continues to attack Israel five years after Israel’s U.N.-certified withdrawal from that country.

At the Quartet meeting, Rice successfully headed off a Russian initiative to convene an international peace conference, an idea Israel rejects until Abbas disarms terrorists.

President Bush, always friendly to Israel, once again went further than much of the international community, condemning Palestinian looters who destroyed the 21 synagogues Israel left behind in Gaza.

“We condemn the desecration of synagogues in Gaza that followed Israel’s withdrawal,” he said last week at a dinner in Washington marking 350 years of Jewish life in America.

Bush was expected to make another pro-Israel announcement at a lunch in Washington on Wednesday marking the 20th anniversary of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Despite the good will, differences over details among Israel, the Palestinians, the Bush administration and Congress promised to keep the parties busy in coming months.

Rice signed off on a Quartet statement that pledged $750 million to the Palestinians in the coming year — including, presumably, at least $200 million from the United States. Both parties in Congress remain skeptical about the efficacy of such funds as long as Abbas is not in full control.

The House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee was to hear testimony on Palestinian funding Wednesday from the two top U.S. envoys to the region, Gen. William Ward on security and David Welch on diplomacy.

Israel has not announced a timetable to remove at least 24 illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, though Sharon had told Bush he would do so as soon as the Gaza withdrawal was complete.

The Quartet also called on Israel to immediately freeze settlement expansion, something Sharon might hesitate to do as he heads off a primaries challenge in the coming months from the hawkish flank of his Likud Party.

Rice gave little quarter there, saying she regarded a settlement freeze as an Israeli obligation.

“President Bush has been very clear that we do not expect Israel to engage in activities that will prejudge a final status, because questions about the final border are indeed final-status issues,” she said.

Rice specifically cited an Israeli plan — currently frozen — to expand the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim to adjoin Jerusalem.

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