Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Signs of Life After Arafat

The New York Times
January 11, 2005

Signs of Life After Arafat

There was much to celebrate about the way the Palestinians managed a free, fair and democratic election in occupied territory, moving beyond mourning for Yasir Arafat and giving Mahmoud Abbas a broad mandate as the Arab world's sole democratically elected leader. It was also impressive that men and women from Gaza to Hebron and the Jenin refugee camp accomplished this act of democracy despite Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints, and an exchange of gunfire between Hezbollah and the Israeli military. Now we hope the Palestinians can turn that civic energy into pragmatic efforts toward negotiating peace with Israel.

Mr. Abbas, the new president of the Palestinian Authority, faces a daunting agenda. After four years of violence, the economy of the Palestinian areas is in shambles. Unemployment is high because thousands of Palestinians who were once able to hold jobs in Israeli cities are now barred from entry, and movement around Palestinian areas is choked by Israeli roadblocks.

Under Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian Authority squandered the good will of much of its public and of the international community through corruption. For Mr. Abbas to have any chance of achieving an independent Palestinian state with some claim to Jerusalem, he has two huge battles to fight. He must crack down on the terrorism that has given the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, an excuse to refuse to negotiate a peace deal, and he must prepare the Palestinian people for the compromises they will have to make.

Both battles will be wrenchingly painful. Beyond dealing with groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Mr. Abbas must also contend with legions of unemployed, angry young men who make up various armed groups. Many of these fighters could get jobs and salaries in a reformed Palestinian security service, provided Israel gives Mr. Abbas the room to create such a force and the Palestinians give it real training and discipline. It will not be easy to achieve, but such a service, preferably under the command of someone with Mr. Abbas's ear, could go a long way toward cracking down on the killing, both between Palestinian and Palestinian and between Palestinian and Israeli.

Mr. Abbas's second task, preparing his people for negotiations with Israel based on the realities of the deal they must eventually make, may prove even tougher. The Palestinians can no longer afford to raise their boys and girls to believe in all-or-nothing propositions regarding Israel. The longer they do that, the longer it will take to reach a settlement, and the longer the Palestinians dally about reaching a peace deal with Israel, the more land they lose.

The world has long recognized what steps must be taken on the path that began in Olso; a year ago, Israelis and Palestinians of good will met in Geneva and hammered out an unofficial proposal for a settlement. It calls for two neighboring states with two capitals in Jerusalem, the evacuation of most Jewish settlements and the incorporation of the rest into Israel in exchange for land for Palestine. It also calls for a limit, to be set by Israel, on the number of Palestinian refugees who can settle in Israel, and compensation or resettlement for the rest.

Getting to the point where such a plan is even on the negotiating table will also require real political courage from Israel.

It was reassuring yesterday that the Israeli Parliament gave Mr. Sharon approval for a new government that can push forward, with Palestinian participation, on leaving the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon can help shore up Mr. Abbas by finally cracking down on the illegal settlements that his government has not only allowed, but also encouraged. And Israel can begin to withdraw from settlements in the West Bank. Gaza is only a first step.

Like the Palestinian leaders, Mr. Sharon and other Israeli officials have been unwilling to prepare the extreme factions of their population for reality. The hundreds of demonstrators who spent yesterday outside the prime minister's office to protest loudly against the planned Gaza pullout will have to learn to share that land with the Palestinians if they ever want peace.