Divided, they fall

June 16, 2006

The violence engulfing the Gaza Strip is threatening to overtake the elected Palestinian government, sabotage a national referendum on statehood and ensnare Israel in a cycle of attacks and retribution that enflamed the region in the past. The clashes have been led by loyalists of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, rivals of the Islamists from Hamas. They have contributed to daily rocket attacks into southern Israel that have triggered deadly, retaliatory airstrikes. Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh must rein in their factions and peaceably work out their differences; the infighting intensifies a situation already so desperate for Palestinians that government workers who have gone unpaid for months attacked the Parliament on Wednesday.

There are reasons for all sides to compromise. Hamas leaders can't effectively govern without help from foreign donors who have withheld aid because of the government's refusal to recognize Israel. Palestinians voted them into office to reform government, not dismantle it. Mr. Abbas has to convince his militant supporters that any attempt to forcibly overthrow the Hamas government would alienate voters and provoke the group's military wing.

The United States seems content to let the factions fight it out, a risky diplomatic stance. Israel has a stake in this because the yearlong, Hamas-initiated cease-fire has reduced attacks inside Israel. A civil war in Gaza also may force Israel to send troops there, entangling its military in a volatile situation it was glad to leave last year.

What has been lost in the fighting is this political truth: Most Palestinians favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which implicitly means recognition of the Jewish state. That's a reality Mr. Haniyeh refuses to accept for ideological reasons - and that has to change.

Mr. Abbas' call for a national referendum on statehood, as proposed by a coalition of Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israel, remains the best vehicle yet to forge a consensus among the groups. A vote for statehood also would give Palestinians a platform to press for renewed talks with Israel.

But Palestinians have to be united to successfully engage the Israelis and receive international support in their pursuit of independence. Political infighting and armed clashes dangerously erode any chances of realizing a state of their own.

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