Abbas' challenge

April 22, 2005

REINING IN the unruly factions within his political base has proved difficult for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. One week a group of militants tears through the streets of Ramallah, the West Bank city where Mr. Abbas' government has its headquarters. The next, another group in Jenin threatens to storm legislative offices over jobs for themselves and other Palestinians.

Mr. Abbas hasn't been deterred in his pursuit of law and order. He fired a top security chief and pressed on with recruiting militants wanted by Israel to come out from hiding in exchange for protection and work. Press on he must, if he is to convince the White House that he is living up to the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement that ended five years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Without that, Mr. Abbas won't be able to insist that President Bush press Israel to hold up its end of this truce. The trouble is, Mr. Abbas' support among Palestinian factions is tentative. Five hundred militants reportedly accepted Mr. Abbas' back-to-work offer. But it wasn't the deal Mr. Abbas initially pursued (he wanted them to turn in their weapons). It's the deal he could get. And that points up a vulnerability of Mr. Abbas' presidency.

Mr. Abbas may be the democratically elected leader, but his ability to govern has been dictated by factors beyond his control: the Israeli occupation, the militants' popular support, the availability of weapons. Coupled with competing political interests and pressure to improve conditions for his people, that's a potent mix. Governing has required compromise and concessions, and not always in Mr. Abbas' favor.

The expansion of Jewish settlements complicates his efforts. Not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon isn't moved by Mr. Abbas' objections; nor, for that matter, is he by President Bush's. That Mr. Sharon's government announced a 50-house settlement expansion so soon after his Texas meeting with the president deserves a response. Mr. Bush should just as cavalierly ignore Israel's request to help finance Mr. Sharon's planned Gaza withdrawal.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas are heading into some difficult seas this summer. Settlers have vowed to resist the removal of their compatriots from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Abbas will have to manage the return of that land to his government within weeks, if not days, of parliamentary elections that could advance the political standing of the militant group Hamas. With so much at stake, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas should be working in support of each other, because only two strong leaders can achieve a just and lasting peace.

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