Abbas' second act

June 20, 2007

Hamas' revolt in the Gaza Strip is the best thing to happen to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas since the Islamic militants' electoral rout of his Fatah party 18 months ago. The bloody purge of Fatah security forces from Gaza last week was an embarrassing defeat, but it has reinvigorated Mr. Abbas' beleaguered presidency, providing him with the chance - the excuse - to dissolve the Hamas-dominated government and replace it with Fatah loyalists encamped in the West Bank.

The response from the Bush administration, Israel and other Western allies has been immediate, a pledge to release millions in dollars that had been kept from the Hamas government for its refusal to acknowledge Israel and renounce terrorism. This money is critical to Mr. Abbas' re-establishing himself as a legitimate and effective leader for the Palestinian cause.

But legitimacy can't be bought; it must be earned, and Fatah-led governments have a history of being ineffectual and corrupt. That's what led many Palestinians to vote for Hamas in the 2006 elections. Mr. Abbas and his new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, a respected, U.S.-educated economist, have a difficult job ahead. They have to reinvent their party, reclaim the reins of power in an impoverished land, reinforce security in the West Bank and establish a government that can provide basic services to a people divided by geography.

The only decided loser in the Hamas-Fatah battle has been the democratic process. But the Bush administration, which advocated a new Middle East democracy, has brushed aside concerns over Mr. Abbas' right to replace the elected Hamas government. And if Mr. Abbas is going to have a fighting chance at reversing Palestinians' downward slide, he needs the financial and political support of the U.S., Europe and Israel.

It's a risky proposition, in that the preferred outcome, a revitalized West Bank led by a moderate government, can't be guaranteed just by a resumption of aid dollars. Palestinian civil society is in shambles, Israeli security policies continue to hamper Palestinian life and there's the unresolved question of what happens to the 1.5 million Gazans now under Hamas rule, hundreds of whom are trying to flee the narrow strip.

Israel should do more than return to the Palestinians the millions in tax revenue that is rightfully theirs. Mr. Abbas has called for a release of Palestinian prisoners and a resumption of a peace process. Israel has reason to be cautious, but too often in the past, opportunities to reinforce Mr. Abbas weren't taken, and Palestinian moderates suffered the consequences.

In the absence of any promising new leaders, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad should be given the support they need because there are thousands of Hamas supporters with an interest in having them fail.

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