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Starting with Yasser Arafat following the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel and the US have a long record of choosing "pragmatic" Palestinian leaders, attempting to prop them up, and watching with dismay as the guns and butter invested are squandered and turned against Israel. The latest disappointment has been Mahmoud Abbas, whose abundant Western-supplied weaponry was captured by the ton by Hamas, which easily overran Gaza, and sent Abbas's forces packing.
Now, like true gluttons for punishment, we are trying the same tactic again, this time with the same discredited leader. Abbas never did anything about corruption, would not confront Hamas, and failed to touch the Fatah old guard that so discredited him among the Palestinian people. It was this failure to reform that convinced Palestinians to vote for Hamas, and ultimately caused the collapse of Fatah's numerically stronger forces in Gaza when Hamas made its move a few weeks ago.
Despite the appointment of the widely respected Salaam Fayad as prime minister, no one believes that Abbas will take action either against militias or to reform Fatah. Yet Fayad has become the new Abbas, the moderate who will save the day.
Accordingly, Israel has agreed to temporarily stop hunting some 200 wanted Fatah terrorists who sign a statement saying they will not return to terrorist activity. In the past, the majority of prisoners who have signed such statements have in fact returned to terrorism after their release. In addition, Israel has agreed to allow Nayef Hawatmeh, the leader of the PLO faction that committed the 1974 Ma'alot massacre of 26 Israelis, most of them children, to come from Damascus to Ramallah for a PLO meeting.
It is difficult to imagine how granting entry to this aging terrorist will help Fayad or Abbas. In any case, the more salient question is: help them do what? First Arafat, then Abbas, and now Fayad created expectations that they will finally take Israel's yes for an answer, stop fighting Israel, and start building a Palestinian state.
As usual, Israel is taking concrete security risks in exchange for the slim chance that there is someone on the other side who is willing and able to take responsibility and extract the Palestinians from their path of societal suicide. The key component of such a Palestinian reversal would be a decision to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, instead of in place of Israel.
Ostensibly, the Palestinian decision to adopt such a two-state solution occurred with Arafat's renunciation of terrorism in 1988, or his signing of Oslo in 1993. In practice, Arafat went to war rather than accept a Palestinian state in 2000, and Abbas, whatever his desires and intentions, did not lift a finger to start creating a state when given the opportunity in the post-Arafat era.
If the Palestinians became serious about state building rather than war fighting, the shift would be obvious. Instead of rejecting every Israeli effort to create joint economic projects, such as joint industrial zones, the Palestinian leadership would welcome them and protect them from attack. Instead of using its media to foment hatred and promote "martyrdom" against Israel, the Palestinian leadership would start undoing the years of education for war and begin educating for peace. And instead of cultivating Arafat's culture of divide and rule, all militias would be eliminated and Abbas's "one gun" promise would be implemented.
The risks that Israel is taking to give the Palestinians yet another chance to take such a course should not be minimized. Based on the record, such risks are difficult if not impossible to justify.
For the Palestinians, however, the stakes are even higher. They must choose whether to allow the Islamification of Gaza to spread to the West Bank, or to move in the opposite direction, toward peace with Israel.
Until now, Fatah has had the luxury of pretending it had decided to make peace with Israel, while keeping the war against Israel as alive as it could. Now the price of such a policy will be abdication to Hamas, which stands for the policy of never ending the war with Israel and never building a state.
There is a limit to what Israel, the US or anyone else can do to help Palestinian leaders make this choice. Ultimately, it is their own. They must decide if they want the state they claim to have been fighting for, or not. If so, they will have to begin waging peace rather than war, and will have to focus inward on building, rather than outward on attacking. As usual, all of us will lose if they make the wrong choice.