Things are not going well on peace front. Kassam rockets are once again falling on Sderot, which suggests that the previous lull had more to do with Palestinian tactics than any determination by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to uproot the phenomenon. The Palestinian Authority has also made it clear that it will not make any effort to disarm any Palestinian militant factions. "We have no intention of withdrawing the arms of resistance," the head of the PA Internal Preventive Security Service said last week.
At most, Abbas will attempt to co-opt the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade and other militant groups by integrating them into the Palestinian security forces. That strategy has as much to recommend it from the Israeli point of view as a strategy to end the insurgency in Iraq by encouraging insurgents to sign up for the Iraqi army and offering them all the explosives and grenades they want.
In addition, the Palestinian Authority is once again up to its old double game of saying one thing in English and another in Arabic. After a late February suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the PA rushed to condemn the bombing in English. Meanwhile the official PA daily was lauding the suicide bomber as a shahid (martyr), and placed a large colored photograph on its front page.
Prime Minister Sharon has instructed Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to tell her Palestinian negotiating partners that Israel does "not intend to live under fire. There will be no immediate release of an additional 400 security prisoners to add to the 500 already released since the Palestinian prime ministerial elections. In addition, Sharon has refused to turn over any additional Palestinian towns to PA control until the PA moves to disarm Palestinian militants. Don't hold your breath.
Despite the Palestinian Authority's failure to attack the terrorist infrastructure, Israel continues to face pressure to make concessions in order to strengthen the position of PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. About Abbas' weakness there can be no doubt. As Ehud Ya'ari reports in the most recent Jerusalem Report, Jenin is controlled by armed members of the Al-Aksa Brigades; another gang recently opened fire on the governor's house in Tulkarm; and in Ramallah, members of another disaffected militia shot into the courtyard of offices in which Abbas was meeting, without fear of retribution.
Large Hamas rallies of armed men in the major Palestinian cities of the Gaza Strip have made a mockery of orders against the public display of guns. Hundreds of Hamas gunmen in Gaza City recently forced the Palestinian Authority to release a member arrested for firing rockets at Israel, further humiliating Abbas, who had declared an "iron fist" to clamp down on militants. The Jerusalem Post's Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh wrote last week that the question on the Palestinian street is not whether, but when, Abbas will tender his resignation.
The remedy for Abbas' unwillingness or inability to confront the militias, according to the international community and many in Israel as well, is for Israel to make gestures that will bolster his position. Thus Ya'ari argues that Prime Minister Sharon should "feed Abu Mazen (Abbas) a steady stream of gestures and concessions . . . before the disengagement." After all, he argues, ending incursions into Palestinian cities on the West Bank is hardly more dangerous than turning over all of Gaza to Palestinian control, and dismantling roadblocks in Palestinian areas poses less of the threat than ceding control over the Philadelphia salient separating Gaza from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai.
Of course, the comparison of relative dangers cuts two ways. The greater dangers involved in the Gaza withdrawal can as easily be used as an argument against the withdrawal as one in favor of the gestures Ya'ari proposes.
The rationale for any concessions obviously hinges on the assumption that Abbas is genuinely committed to a realistic peace with Israel. For that we have only Prime Minister Sharon's assurances. Certainly nothing in Abbas public pronouncements suggests any newly discovered realism on the Palestinian side. But whether Abbas is only an Arafat in a suit, committed to the strategy of slices adopted by the PLO in 1974 of accepting whatever could be rested from Israel diplomatically as a base to launch the next military action, or he really seeks to enter into a long-term peace with Israel may be completely irrelevant. If he is incapable of taking any steps to the latter goal because of fear that the Palestinian public will rise up against him, then he is, in any event, useless as far as Israel is concerned.
Natan Sharansky puts the matter succinctly in The Case for Democracy: "[M]oderation is not a function of a leader's disposition or promises, but rather a function of the nature of the society he or she governs. . . . One can rely on a free society to create the moderate, but one cannot rely on a moderate to create a free society." Abbas' moderation, even if real, cannot bring about a transformation of Palestinian society.
Neither can unilateral Israeli concessions in the face of Palestinian failure to adhere to prior commitments. Elementary logic demonstrates that such concessions cannot bolster moderate elements. They create an incentive for the Palestinian leadership to never risk challenging armed opponents or doing anything at all. If perceived weakness can be used to extract concessions, better to act weak and powerless.
Over and over during the Oslo process, Israel was told that it was impossible to hold Arafat to previous commitments or demand compliance, for to do so would only weaken him and strengthen the more radical Hamas. Naturally, Arafat never paid the slightest attention to fulfilling his promises, for there was nothing pushing him to do so. The same thing happened during Abbas' first stint as prime minister. As Sharansky describes the process, "Demands for compliance give way to parallel steps, which eventually give way to one-sided concessions."
Failure to insist on compliance with past agreements and granting one-sided concessions only makes sense if one considers Palestinian intentions irrelevant and seeks only to arrive at a preordained point, such as Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice lines. That is pretty much the policy Sharansky describes Ehud Barak following as prime minister. He refused to include in his government's guidelines any requirement of Palestinian reciprocity for Israeli territorial concessions, and he resisted all efforts to link concessions to the Palestinians to their compliance with past agreements. Such demands for compliance were, in Barak's words, simply excuses for not "moving forward."
"Moving forward," however, was measured in the number of agreements signed and the number of Israelis territorial withdrawals, not in changes in the Palestinian attitudes towards Israel, which, in any event, grew progressively more virulent the longer Oslo went on.
We have already been down the road of concessions and gestures to strengthen endangered Palestinian leaders before, and we have seen where that got us. To do so again would meet Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.