After the withdrawal

August 15, 2005|By Robert O. Freedman

DESPITE OFTEN violent protests by Israelis and attacks against them by Palestinian terrorist, it appears likely that Israel's departure from Gaza and four West Bank settlements will begin on schedule today.

Yet the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process depends on whether the United States will take an active diplomatic role in it after disengagement.

Israel believes there can be no progress toward peace unless Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cracks down on the armed terrorist groups. Israelis are disappointed in Mr. Abbas because he has tried to co-opt these groups rather than confront them.

But Mr. Abbas does not appear to have Palestinian public support for a crackdown. He has not moved vigorously to root out corruption that has plagued the Palestinian Authority and his own organization, Fatah. And, partly because he does not have an army that he can depend on, he has not moved decisively to stem the near-anarchy prevailing in the parts of the West Bank and Gaza under Palestinian control.

But Israel and the United States can strengthen Mr. Abbas' position so that he could move against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups.

Israel could approve the rapid reopening of the Gaza airport, the construction of a Gaza seaport and, most important, the opening of a road between Gaza and the West Bank. These moves would be of great symbolic importance - especially the corridor between Gaza and the West Bank - and would reassure the Palestinians that disengagement does not mean that Israel has adopted a "Gaza first and last" policy.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could make these moves without threatening Israeli security, because safeguards could be built into each project. But he has been slow to approve them, whether for domestic political reasons, as part of his bargaining strategy - no concessions until the Palestinians crack down on the terrorists - or because he doesn't fully trust Mr. Abbas.

The United States can help. Indeed, while U.S. special envoy James Wolfensohn works on these issues, a direct intervention by President Bush, who has a special relationship with Mr. Sharon, would appear to be necessary to get the Israeli leader to move ahead rapidly with the projects.

Washington also could help strengthen Mr. Abbas' ability to confront lawlessness in Palestinian areas. He has requested that Israel permit the transfer of the Palestinian Badr Brigade of about 1,500 men from Jordan to the West Bank. He apparently believes the Jordanian-trained force would be loyal to him and could help restore law and order.

He also has requested armored personnel carriers to give Palestinian forces more mobility and wants more automatic weapons from Israel to enable them to better cope with their Palestinian opponents.

Mr. Sharon has rejected these requests, asserting that the troops and weapons could be turned against Israel and the weapons sold to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as they were during the last intifada.

It doesn't appear as if more troops and weapons would tip the military balance against Israel, even if a third intifada should erupt. At the same time, they could help strengthen Mr. Abbas so that he could deal not only with anarchy but also with the rising challenge of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Both have sought to sabotage his plans for a peaceful disengagement from Gaza so they could claim it was they who have driven the Israelis out.

Again, the United States should use its influence with Israel to help bolster Mr. Abbas.

Washington also could facilitate the rapid transfer of money to the PA from the Group of Eight industrialized nations, which have pledged $9 billion over three years. The money could be used to build housing in Gaza, providing employment for Gazans while overcoming the housing shortage there, and to enable Mr. Abbas to pension off corrupt PA members who would be a political threat to him.

Finally, to reassure Israel as it makes concessions to the Palestinians and resumes negotiations with Mr. Abbas after disengagement, Mr. Bush should encourage Arab countries such as Morocco and Tunisia to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel that were cut during the last intifada. The United States also must make it clear to Mr. Abbas that disarming Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist groups is the price Washington expects him to pay for U.S. support.

Robert O. Freedman, Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University, recently returned from a working visit to Israel and the West Bank.

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