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Don’t Fall in Love With Abbas Yet

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Visiting Israel last month, I ate in crowded restaurants and shopped in crowded malls. Most tourists may not have gotten the message yet -- Jerusalem’s Old City was almost empty just a week before Christmas -- but it is clear that the 4-year-old intifada has faded into insignificance. Life in Israel has returned to normal, or at least as normal as it ever gets in a country that has faced threats to its existence from day one.

Conventional wisdom holds that it is almost impossible for a democracy to defeat a determined insurgency -- an impression strengthened by recent events in Iraq. Israel provides a contrary case. Suicide attacks in 2004 were down more than 40% from the year before. And not for lack of trying on the part of Palestinians. It is simply that “martyrdom” operations are being stymied by a combination of defensive and offensive measures.

Most of these are fairly innocuous, such as the security guards posted in front of every restaurant and shopping center who search purses and operate metal detectors. More controversial is the security barrier, tendentiously characterized by Israel’s enemies as “the Wall,” that is being completed between Israel and the West Bank.

I drove about 10 miles out of Tel Aviv to see the barrier separating the Israeli town of Kfar Saba from the Palestinian town of Kalkilya. There was a small stretch of concrete wall to protect the highway from snipers, but the barrier I saw was mostly a chain-link fence. On either side of it was a dirt strip that is kept clear to show footprints of infiltrators. A sophisticated system of electronic sensors and cameras provides constant coverage.

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At a nearby Israeli army base, a roomful of college-age intelligence specialists -- all women -- sit before banks of video screens and computers monitoring the fence. If the alarm goes off -- in the form of a tune from the 1970s British rock group Queen -- a patrol is sent out to investigate.

The erection of this barrier has actually meant a decrease in disruption in the lives of the residents of Kalkilya, who no longer have to pass through an Israeli checkpoint when they travel to other parts of the West Bank. A checkpoint still exists for entry to Israel, but traffic was moving briskly when I was there.

Israelis attribute much of the decrease in suicide attacks to the barrier’s ability to keep out terrorists from the West Bank. But Israeli commandos also conduct nightly raids in the West Bank to gather intelligence and arrest suspects. In the Gaza Strip, where the Israel Defense Forces have less of a presence, it’s harder to nab terrorists, so the IDF kills them with bombs and missiles -- a campaign that, despite worldwide condemnation, has decimated Hamas.

The success of these anti-terror initiatives, combined with the death of Yasser Arafat, has produced a propitious moment for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Most Israelis are willing to make concessions like pulling out of the Gaza Strip. Most Palestinians are sick of violence. Optimists are convinced that the election of Mahmoud Abbas will solidify this trend and result in a long-awaited deal.

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Maybe they’re right. But it wasn’t encouraging to see Abbas literally embracing top terrorists and referring to the “Zionist enemy.” Nor has he ever renounced Palestinians’ “right of return,” which is tantamount to not recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. And even if Abbas genuinely believes in peaceful coexistence, it is not clear that he has the will or the power to repress militants who want to drive the Jews into the sea.

All of this suggests that it would be a mistake for the West to embrace Abbas in a bearhug -- the same mistake that was made with Arafat in the 1990s. What’s needed now is not another Palestinian strongman puffed up by the West, but a vibrant Palestinian democracy with a multitude of leaders. Last weekend’s election, in which Abbas had no significant competition and which he won by 40 percentage points, hardly qualifies.

Self-styled “realists” disagree, arguing that only a strongman like Egypt’s Anwar Sadat can make peace, but that’s precisely the mind-set that led to the failed strategy of the last decade, which only begat more violence.

There is no reason to think that most Palestinians want to sacrifice their children as suicide bombers; indeed, Hamas boycotted the presidential election partly because it didn’t want its unpopularity exposed. The strongest demands from Palestinians are for more economic growth and less corruption. Until Abbas shows himself willing to seriously address those needs, the West should lavish its largess on independent Palestinian groups, from websites to human rights monitors, not on the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority.

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The democratization option may ultimately fail, but at least Israel’s victory over terrorism has bought time to give it a fair shot. Sunday’s election was, at best, only a modest beginning.


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