THE LIMITED release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel is threatening to undermine the leadership of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the cease-fire in the tenuous Middle East peace agreement. All sides in this dispute need to re-evaluate their positions if the process is to move forward.
As a confidence-building measure, Israel has decided to release about 300 of the estimated 6,000 Palestinians arrested during the recent uprising. Critics of Mr. Abbas - some reportedly encouraged by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, forever the spoiler - reject that number as too few, and we don't necessarily disagree. They charge that Mr. Abbas has been too soft on Israel.
But Palestinian criticism of Mr. Abbas is premature. To say he has won few concessions from Israel indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of this delicate process.
For the past 33 months, terrorist attacks and military reprisals have dominated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A cease-fire by Palestinian militants - negotiated by Mr. Abbas, by the way - has provided an opportunity to change the dynamic. Anyone who has studied Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon knows that making demands of him won't produce results.
Mr. Abbas' forte is the art of negotiation, and negotiations require a receptive party. Mr. Abbas should be given the time and support to develop a relationship with Mr. Sharon to produce the concessions Palestinians want. If Mr. Abbas is wasting his time with Mr. Sharon, he will know soon enough.
That's not to say that the criteria for the prisoner release shouldn't be reviewed. It's hard to imagine that there aren't some Palestinian men who don't have "blood on their hands" sitting in Israeli jails. Mr. Sharon and his Cabinet rightly recognize that releasing some prisoners strengthens Mr. Abbas and in turn benefits Israel. To that end, Israel's self-described "limited, qualified and measured release of prisoners" should be expanded.
The Bush administration wants Mr. Abbas to succeed and is allocating $20 million in aid to shore up his government. The money is intended to improve the daily lives of Palestinians and counter the effects of Hamas' social service network. Hamas' popularity is a factor about which both the United States and Israel should concern themselves.
Support for the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas' official name, continues to grow in the Palestinian territories, according to a June survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. That survey underscored the need to bolster the government of Mr. Abbas. Palestinian support for Mr. Abbas has declined, and the majority of those surveyed registered no confidence in his government.
It's unlikely that the U.S. aid will quell the outcry over Palestinian prisoners. Israel shouldn't count on that, nor should the Bush administration.