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Volume 1 - Number 2 - August 2005 

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Focus on Disengagement and Democracy

What’s the current disengagement situation – and its potential for success? Here, from the Washington offices of the IPF (Israel Policy Forum), is a summary of recent events: 

Disengagement Update 


Anti-disengagement Opposition

Palestinian Democracy

Can Abbas Do More?

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued in the New Republic Online recently that Secretary of State Rice missed an opportunity when, during her latest visit to Ramallah, she chose not to condemn Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ seemingly lackluster fight against terror.  Is he right? 

Without a doubt, Abbas has a lot of work left to do to end terror and assert his control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Last week’s Islamic Jihad attacks that killed two Israelis in the West Bank were a clear violation of the ceasefire Abbas implemented last winter and a direct challenge to his authority and political program. There is a prevailing sense of lawlessness in the Palestinian territories, highlighted by the recent attack on a building in which the Palestinian Prime Minister was speaking. At the same time, there have been persistent reports that Hamas is taking advantage of the ceasefire to refill its depleted arsenals, while also making impressive progress in the national political arena. Some Israeli analysts, including Roni Shaked of Yediot Ahronoth, have ominously warned of "a third Intifada" just over the horizon. 

Compounding Abbas’ difficulties, his political party, Fatah, has seen a precipitous drop in its electoral prospects in the past few months, as its leaders are hounded by charges of corruption and mismanagement. Abbas was forced to indefinitely postpone Legislative Council elections scheduled for July on a legal technicality, but it is widely suspected that the delay was a response to Hamas’ rising popularity. 

Most worrisome to Israelis is the possibility that Abbas might not to be up to the task of eradicating terrorism. Prime Minister Sharon would like to see an aggressive program aimed at disarming the terrorist groups, by force if necessary. But Abbas, for practical and political reasons, has no desire to pursue this course of action – he prefers a strategy of gradually co-opting militants into the Palestinian security and political system. His supporters argue that Abbas’ approach has produced results: the Palestinian cease-fire and six months of relative calm. Israelis, for the most part, are not impressed, seeing Abbas’ efforts as half-hearted and unlikely to succeed. The 

Sharon-Abbas Meeting 

This was the crux of the disagreement between Sharon and Abbas at a recent meeting. Sharon demanded more action on security; Abbas responded that without Israeli help, there was little he could do. 

Both sides have a point. Sharon understandably wants Abbas to take a frontline position in the war on terror because it would serve both Israeli and Palestinian interests, especially in the days leading up to disengagement. 

But Abbas faces significant limitations. For instance, Abbas needed Israel’s permission to purchase light arms for the PA security and police forces. And Israel said "no." This highlights the near-total dependency of the Palestinian Authority on Israeli policy decisions, especially in the realm of security. Satloff writes that Abbas should be reminded that "no state survives long" in the absence of law and order, and he is right. But the Palestinians do not have a state, nor do they have sovereignty over most of their cities and towns. Abbas has a responsibility to restore order, but it impractical to think he can do it independent of Israel which, after all, remains in control of Palestinian territory. Without tangible political achievements to show his constituents, it is unlikely he will earn their support for dramatic action against violent groups. 

The U.S. Role 

Satloff argues that "strong words" from the U.S. could spur Abbas into action, even if it means a Palestinian civil war. There is clearly a security problem in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it unlikely that rhetorical or military pressure on Abbas will do much to solve it. 

What Abbas needs from the Israelis and Americans is not so much pressure as tangible assistance.  President Bush understands this. At his press conference with the Palestinian leader in Washington last month, he pointed out that Abbas committed himself to nonviolence and reform during his election campaign. "That's what he said he was going to do and he's now fulfilling it," Bush said. The president raised the profile of General William Ward, who is assisting the PA as it strengthens its security forces in order to assume control over the Gaza Strip after Israel withdraws, and pledged $50 million to assist the Palestinian Authority implement reforms and meet obligations. 

During her latest visit, Secretary of State Rice continued the pattern of constructive engagement. She coupled her calls for Palestinian action against terror and lawlessness with calls for Israeli actions easing freedom of movement for Palestinian civilians and goods, and with demands for an end to Israeli settlement activity. 

While the U.S. believes Abbas must "do more" to ensure that the ceasefire holds, Secretary Rice also emphasized the need for a coordinated withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. Israeli-Palestinian cooperation during the Gaza withdrawal could lead to cooperation after the withdrawal, assuming the roadmap is reactivated and negotiations begin in earnest. At the very least, Israel has an enormous interest in seeing Abbas and the PA control Gaza after disengagement rather than Hamas.

For the sake of the peace process, the U.S. has a responsibility to press Abbas to fight terror to the best of his ability. But it is important to remember that Abbas is still fighting for legitimacy within the Palestinian population; he won’t achieve it if Palestinians see him as receiving nothing tangible from the US and Israel in exchange for his rejection of violence and the politics of intifada. Rather than constructive engagement with Abbas, the United States and Israel could choose, as Satloff suggests, turning up the rhetoric. But that won’t strengthen Abbas in his efforts against terror and, in the end, could help lead to his undoing. Let’s not forget who is waiting in the wings.

- David Dreilinger and IPF Staff in Washington DC and Jerusalem.

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