The positive vibes coming from Tuesday's Palestinian reform conference in London will soon become distant memories unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stops trying to make nice with terrorists and starts confronting them with force.
Abbas has said all the right things following last Friday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. His unequivocal condemnation of the attack is a welcome change from the typical Palestinian response under the reign of Yassir Arafat.
In his public statements, Abbas insisted that terrorist attacks "will not be tolerated" and said that Palestinians are "exerting 100% efforts" to end violence against Israel. But as long as Abbas rules out the use of force against terrorist organizations, there is no reason for these groups to heed his words.
In the West Bank town of Jenin on Tuesday, there was a taste of how Abbas's government coddles terrorist groups. Nasser Yousef, Abbas' newly appointed security chief, was in the town when members of the terrorist organization Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades started shooting in the air and demanding that he leave, according to an Associated Press account. After first asking the police to arrest the extremists, Yousef instead rewarded their leader with a meeting and did not make one arrest.
Abbas is clearly in a bind. Newly elected, he is trying to put together a legitimate Palestinian government after years of corruption under the rule of Arafat. Abbas does not want to be seen as a puppet of the United States and Israel and there are concerns that using force against terrorist groups would trigger a civil war. But Abbas should take a lesson from his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Even though Sharon is leading a fragile coalition government and has received harsh criticism from within his own Likud Party, he has forged ahead with plans to remove 9,000 Israeli settlers from their homes in Gaza and part of the West Bank later this year. The decision threatens to tear Israel apart, with some religious members of the Israeli Defense Forces potentially disobeying orders to evacuate settlers. Because of his decision to pullout from Gaza (using force if necessary), Sharon has received 70 death threats in the past three months alone.
But Sharon's willingness to move aggressively against bitter-enders is nothing new for Israelis. Time and again, Israel's leaders have demonstrated that they would not hesitate to use force against extremist groups in the interests of peace and security.
In a situation with close parallels to the Gaza pullout, Israel sent its army to remove thousands of Israeli settlers from Sinai in 1982 to abide by the peace treaty Israel had negotiated with Egypt at Camp David. At the time, Sharon was minister of defense.
When Israel was founded in 1948, it was a fledgling country surrounded by neighbors that wanted to wipe it off the map. But David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, forcibly disbanded several paramilitary organizations and he even sunk a ship filled with weapons that were purchased by one of these groups. The controversial move claimed 82 lives.
Last Friday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which killed five people and wounded at least 50 others, gives credence to right-wing critics of Sharon who view the Feb. 8 negotiated truce with Palestinians with skepticism. Following the attack, Sharon froze plans to transfer control of five West Bank towns to Palestinians and release additional Palestinian prisoners, but he has shown restraint by not taking aggressive military action.
Facing pressure to protect his citizens from violence, Sharon will not be able to hold back forever. If this bombing in Tel Aviv was the first of more to come, eventually Sharon will have to step up military actions against Palestinians, even at the risk of scrapping the peace process.
So far, Abbas has dealt with terrorist organizations through closed door politicking, but it is unlikely that this will yield results over the long term with groups that are committed to Israel's destruction. Indeed, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas has already stated that the period of calm it agreed to was temporary.
Extremists will always have the power to derail the peace process if Abbas does not move aggressively against them. If Abbas cannot deliver security to Israel, it will be difficult for Sharon to convince the Israeli public that negotiating will be productive.
Abbas may never be able to prevent every single attack against Israelis, but to be considered a viable partner for peace, he must at least demonstrate that he is willing to do everything in his power to stop terrorism. This must include the use of force.
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