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In Rebuke to Israel, U.S. Accepts P.A. Strategy of Co-opting Terrorists

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After Mahmoud Abbas’ recent meeting in Washington with President Bush, differences have begun to emerge between the United States and Israel over how to move forward on the Palestinian track. The Palestinian Authority president managed to convince Bush that getting Palestinian terrorist groups to join the political process makes more sense than confronting them head-on, as demanded by the “road map” peace plan.

The Americans also came away from the visit convinced that Israel is not doing enough to help Abbas consolidate his leadership position or to jump-start the stagnant Palestinian economy.

The United States and Israel agree that the Palestinians must end terrorism before there can be significant Israeli-Palestinian progress. Where they differ is over how to achieve their common goal.

The dispute boils down to accommodation versus confrontation. In other words, should the Palestinian Authority try to reach a political arrangement with armed groups like Hamas, or use force to disarm them?

Abbas argues that the way to tame the radicals is to allow them to participate in Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for Jan. 25. That way, he says, they’ll become part of the system and less of a threat to its main policy thrusts.

“This strategy stems from Abbas’ belief that he cannot use force against the armed militias, lest this cause a civil war. So the only way to rein them in is by integrating them into the political system,” Arab affairs analyst Danny Rubinstein writes in Ha’aretz.

Abbas insists that Israeli demands to prevent Hamas from running in the elections as long as it maintains its armed wing only play into the militants’ hands. The Americans agree, and have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of opposing Hamas participation in the vote, even though they don’t like the idea of armed groups taking part in what is meant to be a free, democratic process.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government has little faith in the accommodation strategy. Given the American position, however, Israeli officials say they won’t do anything to stop Hamas from running in the election.

“It’s not in Israel’s interest to intervene,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni declared in an Israel Radio interview on Sunday.

Ideally, Livni would like to see the international community to tell Hamas that disarming is the price of running in the elections, exploiting Hamas’ desire to run.

But she knows that’s not very likely, and that ultimately Israel, like the United States, will leave the question of Hamas’ participation up to the Palestinians.

That was one of the main achievements in Washington for Abbas, who claims that his strategy is working. He notes that Hamas already has agreed to a cease-fire and to a ban on the public display of its weapons, and says the process of domesticating the militants can be continued after the election, when a democratically elected legislature will have the moral authority to disarm them.

As part of its strategy, the Palestinian Authority on Sunday announced a plan to incorporate the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of Abbas’ ruling Fatah Party, into the P.A. security services. The Palestinians say Abbas presented the Al-Aksa plan to Bush and won his approval.

But Israeli officials are skeptical: They point out that the plan was first discussed several months ago, but nothing has been done since then to implement it. Moreover, they note that the Al-Aksa Brigade is part of Abbas’ own secular Fatah movement, and that it will be much harder to coopt and disarm the fundamentalist Hamas.

The United States wants Israel to give Abbas’ strategy more time. It also is telling Israel to help Abbas by dismantling illegal West Bank settlement outposts, freezing settlement construction and taking steps to improve Palestinians’ everyday lives. Mainly, the Americans would like to see Israel lift roadblocks, open border crossing points and release Palestinian prisoners.

For Israel, the dilemma is how to do these things without leaving itself open to more terrorism. After a mid-October drive-by shooting spree in which three young Israelis were killed in the West Bank, Israel reimposed security restrictions it had lifted in an earlier goodwill gesture — a common cycle over the past decade in which Israeli concessions only leave it more vulnerable to attack.

James Wolfensohn, economic envoy of the international “Quartet” driving the peace process, believes the key to a better future lies in the economic transformation of Gaza. He has convinced Bush that prosperity is the best way to weaken and co-opt the terrorists.

Though Wolfensohn is aware of Israel’s security dilemmas, he’s highly critical of what he sees as Israeli foot-dragging on the opening of border crossing points, crucial for Gaza’s economic development.

Despite the growing criticism of Israel, however, the United States remains wedded to the notion that the process won’t move forward significantly unless the Palestinians stop terrorism. In his Oct. 20 news conference with Abbas, Bush declared that “the way forward must begin by confronting the threat that armed gangs pose to a genuinely democratic Palestine,” adding that the Palestinian Authority must “earn the confidence of its neighbors by rejecting and fighting terrorism.”

Bush also exerted pressure on the Palestinians by refusing to put a time frame on their quest for statehood. It might not be during his term, he said, implying that if the Palestinians want a state, they will have to earn it — primarily by ending violence.

Following the Abbas visit, Sharon chose to ignore the criticism of Israel and emphasize the demands the United States is making of the Palestinians.

“The pressure continues to be on the Palestinians to fight terror as a first step,” a Sharon spokesman said. Sharon also has made clear that he has no intention of taking up Abbas’ call for secret peace talks — which, he says, would merely enable the Palestinians to avoid their commitment to crack down on terrorism if they expect to see negotiations.

With no secret channel, and with both Israel and the United States continuing to insist on an end to terrorism as a precondition for peacemaking, prospects for progress are hazy. With America’s blessing and Israel’s reluctant acquiescence, much is riding on the success of Abbas’ policy.

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