Burning Issues brings our best opinion writers to one podium, where they respond, in brief and in real time, to a question about one of the hottest news topics on the agenda. Our aim is also to get you, our readers, involved, by sharing your opinions with the JPost community, or if you wish, by responding to any specific posting. A link to the writer's most recent column appears at the end of each posting. Question #3: Should Israel initiate talks with Syria? Question #2: Who is ahead, Bush or Ahmadinejad? Question #1: Should the Pope have apologized?

Question #4

As Fatah-Hamas tensions reach a boiling point, should Israel be supporting Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah in its conflict with Hamas? If so, in what way? Comments by Jonathan Tobin, Jonathan Rosenblum, Shlomo Avineri, David Horovitz, Daoud Kuttab, Saul Singer, Calev Ben-David, Gerald Steinberg, Stewart Weiss, Michael Freund, Daniel Pipes and Isi Leibler Shlomo Avineri: Any Israeli involvement in the internal Palestinian violence would be a mistake. If Israel appears as a supporter of Abu Mazen, it will be very easy for Hamas to delegitimize him further as an Israeli "stooge". The time has come for Israel to treat the Palestinians with respect, not to try to organize their life for them - especially as what is happening now proves once more the political failure of the Palestinians to set up a reasonably coherent polity. Most Arab regimes rely, in one way or another, on the military and the security services and are Mukhabarat states, and it is now clear that the Palestinian state-in-the-making is nor different in the sense the political power in Palestinian society grows out of the barrel of the gun, through via the ballot box. The pious hopes of many Israeli (and western) observes, that because of the Palestinians' exposure to Israel and its democratic system, something of that will also rub off on the incipient Palestinian body politic, have proven - once again - totally illusory. Palestinian society - like Iraqi society - lacks the basic normative and institutional infra-structures of a civil society: these institutions grow slowly and cannot be adopted - or imported - over night. Israel should let the Palestinians sort out their internal affairs by themselves, while defending basic Israeli interests, and if a coherent Palestinian leadership emerges out of this process, committed to an unconditional acceptance of Israel, Israel should then - only then - engage with it. Lebanon's problem is not just Shaba Farms Michael Freund: The very idea that Israel should support Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah in their confrontation with Hamas is both politically naive and morally obscene. Politically speaking, Abbas is a spent force, a titular figurehead with little or no following and even less influence. As president, he has been an unqualified failure in every respect. Has he reformed the Palestinian Authority? No. Has he clamped down on corruption and malfeasance? Negative. And he has done anything to stop anti-Israel violence and terror? Absolutely not. So placing a bet on Abbas is like putting your money down on a horse with two sprained ankles and a broken leg - the only possible outcome is that you will lose your shirt in the process. And then there is a moral issue here as well: Fatah is a lowly and thuggish terrorist group founded with the aim of murdering as many Jews as possible. Their modus operandi has included stabbings, shootings, bombings, kidnappings, and rocket attacks, and other than the world's readiness to appease them, there is little to distinguish these hooligans from their compatriots in other terrorist organizations. So instead of trying to salvage the sinking ship of Abbas' Fatah regime, Israel would do well to consider tackling the underlying problem at its source - by finally dismantling the hostile Palestinian entity along our borders once and for all. Right On: A miracle of biblical proportions Saul Singer: Israel has a habit of picking favorite Palestinian leaders, rather than backing principles such as freedom and democracy. This is a mistake. We must remember that Yasser Arafat was for a long time considered by Israelis the "moderate" or "pragmatist" who would make peace with Israel. Based on this judgment, Israel did not care that he was a dictator, and even saw this as an advantage, as when Yitzhak Rabin quipped that Arafat would be able to take care of terrorists "bli bagatz v'bli betselem" (without the Supreme Court and without human rights groups). This is Israel's version of realpolitik and it doesn't work. Israel should instead say it does not care who the Palestinians choose to lead them, but cares very much that they enjoy freedom of the press, the rule of law, and other attributes of a true democracy. Interesting Times: Safer or not? Daoud Kuttab: Israel should not support either Hamas or Fatah. It should put an end to the occupation of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian lands which is a major source of the troubles in Gaza and the West Bank. Despite the above, there is no doubt that the present crisis has erupted in part because of the lack of responsiveness by Israel to the moderate nonviolent overtures of Mahmoud Abbas. People seem to forget that President Abbas was in power for nearly a year before Hamas won national elections. During this time the Israeli government didn't meet with him, didn't ease the siege and closure on Palestine and didn't make any confidence building on checkpoints, on removing outposts or releasing prisoners. No wonder people think that Israelis respond only by reaction to attacks (see the unilateral withdrawals), by kidnappings (see the upcoming prisoner exchange). Small wrongs need correcting, too Calev Ben-David: The Israeli government should be supporting Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in exactly the way it has thus far been doing: recognizing him as the legitimate Palestinian leader and continuing to maintain a dialogue with him (as with Foreign Minister Livni's recent meeting with him in NYC), while also standing firm on the internationally-recognized pre-conditions for any negotiations with a Hamas-led government. Abbas deserves Israeli support because he himself has thus far stood firm on those key three conditions (rejecting terror, recognition of Israel, honoring prior agreements between Israel and the PA), even at the risk of open conflict with Hamas, as evidenced by this week's past events. Israel should also support Abbas because it is strongly in its own self-interest to continue to present itself as open to any moderate Arab partner that is truly seeking a genuine accommodation with Israel. Exactly to what degree Israel should assist Abbas as the conflict between Fatah and Hamas develops is best left determined by the course of events. Such steps as supplying ammunition to Fatah forces - as the government did earlier this year, in line with procedures established under the Oslo Accords - fall within the prudent and acceptable, as would providing the PA with relevant intelligence information. It would certainly be unwise though, even potentially disastrous, for Israeli forces to involve themselves directly in an internecine Palestinian conflict, unless that violence threatened to spill over and directly impact Israeli soldiers or civilians. Ultimately, this is a conflict that has to be decided by the Palestinians, even if Israel will have to deal with the consequences. Snap Judgment: A smart media buy Stewart Weiss: Israel should do as little as possible in this internal battle between Hamas and Fatah. The very best thing that could happen - for Israel, the Palestinians and all those who seek real peace in the Middle East - is for a full-blown civil war to break out among the Palestinians. This is the only chance to purge those who swear endless war against Israel and a negotiated settlement. If they can be excised from the Palestinian leadership, then there would be a real opportunity for those who DO support a two-state solution to take control. Until then, the forces of murderous extremism will continue to block and frustrate any progress towards peace. Just as the American Civil War cleared the way for the United States to become the leader of the Free World, so too can a Palestinian civil war create the dynamics that would finally give peace a chance. A tale of two presidents Daniel Pipes: As an American, I try to keep my distance from giving Israelis specific advice. But how can one not have an opinion on the question you ask? I see both Abbas and Hamas as equally deadly enemies of Israel, each boasting its distinct strategy and personnel and both seeking its elimination. This premise prompts me to counsel against helping one side against the other. Israel did not cause this conflict and bears no moral or political responsibility to end it. Palestinian anarchy now being endemic, and on the brink of civil war, Israel's best course is to stand back and let the Arafat gang wreck damage on the Islamists, and vice-versa. If the Palestinians focus their tender mercies on each other rather than on Israel, perhaps the happy result will be a sobered Palestinian population, one that decides to devote more attention to building its own polity, economy, society, and culture, and less to destroying its neighbor's. I wouldn't count on that anytime soon, but at last there is a better chance. Israel in NATO? David Horovitz: So long as an unreformed Hamas governs the Palestinians, everybody will suffer. This is a movement uncompromisingly opposed to the very fact of Israel's existence, and it has determinedly held to that position - and in so doing reduced the Palestinian Authority to pariah status in the eyes of the international community - to the daily detriment of the ordinary Palestinians it claims to represent. It is not for Israel to expedite the demise of the Palestinians' government; you would have thought that the Palestinian public would have long since recognized the damage they caused, most of all to themselves, in electing it. Editors Notes: Abbas's new-old adviser Jonathan Tobin: Mahmoud Abbas is still the Bush administration's poster boy for Arab moderation. Interestingly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to Hamas in a pre-trip interview with The Wall Street Journal as "the Damascus Hamas." As the Journal's Bret Stephens pointed out, the reference seems to indicate that the United States is of the opinion that Hamas is between a "moderate" political faction rooted in Gaza and a more radical terrorist faction based in Damascus. This notion that Hamas can be split and that a portion of it can be co-opted to support Abbas in a coalition government against the real terrorists seems to be underpinning the latest swell of Middle East diplomacy. In the grand tradition of previous sightings of "moderates" within the Arab world, this idea is nothing short of preposterous. The idea of Palestinian moderation lives on like an urban myth spreading on the Internet. Were Abbas a genuine moderate (something a lifetime spent as an aide to Yasser Arafat would seem to belie), perhaps he would have used the considerable force at his disposal to curb Hamas (or the terrorism emanating from his own forces) during the year he had control of the P.A. prior to Hamas' January election victory. The Palestinian crack-up is a sign that the Western boycott of Hamas could work. But rather than wait for Hamas to fall or for Abbas to move against them, Washington seems to be prepared to accept a Hamas/Abbas coalition as kosher. That looks like an immoderate mistake. View From America: The two sides of American conservatism Gerald Steinberg: While Hamas may be the lesser of the two evils, there is nothing that outside powers - the US, Israel or Europe - can or should do to influence the struggle for control of Palestinian society. The lessons of history are clear - for many years, Arafat was considered the "moderate", and the Americans prodded Israel to help him during the Olso "peace framework". The result was over 1000 Israeli deaths in five years of virulent terror. In the two years since Arafat's death, the US, Europe, and, at times of weakness, also Israel have tried to "prop up" Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, without any success. In November, the US-brokered agreement to allow Palestinians to use the Rafah crossing from Gaza, and designed to support Abbas before the January elections, collapsed before the ink dried. But the resulting porous border contributed to the rocket attacks and kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. This and many other examples demonstrated Abbas' weakness as a leader, unable and unwilling to take risks. His Fatah movement is corrupt and drifting without policy or purpose. And while Fatah appears "moderate" compared to Hamas, there is no compelling evidence to conclude that even if they were to recover power among Palestinians, this would lead to a significant breakthrough. Out of weakness, Abbas and other Fatah leaders "walk the walk" and "talk the talk", but Arafat's legacy of rejectionism and terror is still strong among Fatah members. Instead of futile or counterproductive efforts to influence Palestinian (or wider Arab) politics, the best that outsiders can do is to maintain clear requirements for aid and inclusion in the international community. The abandonment of terror, the recognition of the right to the Jewish people to sovereign equality, and some movement towards democracy are necessary for cooperation - whether involving Hamas, Fatah, or any other Palestinian group. And by being left to solve their own problems, Palestinians may begin to recognize the limits of perennial "victimhood" and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Ken Roth's blood libel Jonathan Rosenblum: Even on the assumption that Israel has a dog in the internecine battles between Fatah and Hamas, there is little that Israel can do to aid Fatah that would not be counterproductive and quickly be turned into a propaganda victory for Hamas on the Palestinian street. And there is no reason to believe that such gestures as Israel might make would necessarily redound to Fatah's credit. The idea of Israeli good-will gestures as a means of shoring up Abu Mazen's stature returns us to the darkest days of Oslo. There is no evidence of such gestures - such as opening the Karni crossing - being translated into a more forthcoming attitude on the part of the Palestinians. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of such gestures being immediately followed by deadly terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians through the breaches willingly opened. Goodwill gestures failed to produce results in the past either because the so-called "moderates" (i.e., those loyal to Yasir Arafat) were either not so "moderate" as alleged or were incapable of delivering. In either case, there was no return on Israel's investment. Even as Hamas's popularity declines, two-thirds of Palestinians continue to express support for Hamas's non-recognition of Israel. In that situation, the re-education of a whole new generation of Palestinians is required, but not anticipated, not a few band-aid gestures. Talking nonsense about religion Isi Leibler: We should steer away from both. Despite American delusions of Abbas being a man of peace, Hamas and the PA are birds of a feather. Abbas speaks with a forked tongue endorsing a two state policy subject to the right of return of Arab refugees - a prescription for our demise. More importantly Abbas reigned over an administration whose central pillars - culture and religion and education - were based on sanctifying the murder of Jews as a supreme religious and national objective. Mothers of suicide bombers appeared on official PA TV exulting over the martyrdom of their sons; PA broadcasts of sermons in mosques called on congregants to kill Jews; schools, kindergartens and summer camps brainwashed children into accepting suicide bombers as ultimate role models. Mahmoud Abbas hailed families of suicide bombers as heroes and authorized them to receive a $250 monthly stipend, a recent PA Ministry of Culture book of the month honored Hanadi Jaradat, the suicide bomber who blew up 21 people at a Haifa restaurant. Wafa Idris the first woman suicide bomber has become a Palestinian role model for feminism. Football teams are named after "martyrs". Hamas is honest about their objective of destroying Israel. But Abbas's "militants" are murdering more Israelis in terror attacks than Hamas. When Palestinians ultimately realize that terrorism only worsens their bitter situation, a genuine peace partner may emerge. For a year of people power
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