Thursday, August 18, 2005

Israel's Agony, Palestine's Future - Editorial (Wall Street Journal, 18Aug05)


Even for those who believe - as we do - that Prime Minister Sharon is right to withdraw Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, the past few days in Israel have been heart-rending to watch. The international community, including the U.S., which has long demanded sacrifices from "both sides" for the sake of peace, now has the satisfaction of seeing that sacrifice vividly offered, at least on the Israeli side.

At the same time, the risks of withdrawal are also clear, the main one being that the Palestinians will view it as a sign of weakness. There are indications this is happening, with Hamas declaring in a slogan that "resistance wins, so let's go on." Gaza may yet become a kind of "Hamastan" - a regional terrorist enclave threatening not just Israel but also neighboring Egypt and perhaps Europe.

The man who could make the withdrawal work and stop Hamastan in its tracks is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas came to office democratically in January with a pledge to confiscate illegal weapons and "make the law the leader in this country." Less than a year later, however, the Palestinian territories are more lawless than ever.

Mr. Abbas has been unable to rein in the Aksa Martyrs' Brigades, which is the terrorist paramilitary wing of his ruling Fatah party. He has also failed, or perhaps refused, to enforce his will on Hamas, trying instead to coax them into the political process and getting them to agree to a ceasefire. Hamas has not abandoned its arms, but it has seen its political popularity soar in the face of Mr. Abbas's obvious weakness.

In the coming months, Mr. Abbas may seek to deflect attention from his government's shortcomings by demanding further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. But Israel cannot be expected to make further wrenching withdrawals if the message from the international community is that they are never enough. And Palestine will have no hope of becoming a functional and civilized state if no serious demands are made of it to reform its institutions and eliminate its culture of terrorism and hooliganism.

The problem with Palestine today isn't the absence of land - Singapore isn't much larger than Gaza, and is four times as populous - but the poverty of expectations as to what it ought to be and might become. Israel has now done what it had to. It's time the Palestinians follow suit.

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