Olmert's lifeline

As Olmert doggedly maintains "restraint," is Abbas now prepared to use force to tackle terrorists?

Abbas sits 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Abbas sits 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
At David Ben-Gurion's graveside four weeks ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a heartfelt appeal to the Palestinians. If they and their leadership would "stop the terror, violence and efforts to harm Israeli civilians... recognize our right to live in peace and security next to you, and relinquish your right to the realization of the right of return," he said, they would discover, in Israel, "a ready partner." In a partnership with Israel, the Palestinians would achieve a viable statehood. En route to that state, Olmert said he would relinquish territory and evacuate settlements. More immediately, he said he would release blocked PA funding, ease humanitarian conditions in the territories, remove roadblocks, partner the Palestinians in establishing employment-generating industrial zones and even release security prisoners once Cpl. Gilad Shalit was set free. All of this, once the Palestinians halted terror. At his meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, and in the moves he's been weighing since, Olmert began making good on some of his offers - unilaterally. He is releasing $100 million of that PA tax revenue. He is contemplating the removal of roadblocks. He is reviewing the question of whether to free Palestinian security prisoners, even though Shalit is still being held. All of these moves hold real dangers. However acute the controls over the renewed flow of money, it plainly frees up other funding within the Hamas-dominated PA for potential use to stoke terrorism. However beneficial the increased freedom of movement for ordinary Palestinians, removing roadblocks also makes travel easier for suicide bombers and other terrorists. However firm a freed prisoner's purported commitment to desist from terrorism, experience has unsurprisingly proved that vicious men return to violent habits. The transfer of the $100m., furthermore, undermines the Quartet's insistence on Hamas accepting Israel as a precondition for receiving PA funding. And the contemplated release of security prisoners as a goodwill gesture undermines the legal process that saw them jailed in the first place. That Olmert is making or contemplating these steps is plainly a consequence of American and other international pressure to be seen to be encouraging moderation. Plainly, too, it stems from the prime minister's own stated sense that Abbas, though "not an easy rival," is "a rival who we could talk with to reach an agreement." If this is so, and the Israeli public has every reason to doubt it, Abbas, heading a thoroughly unpopular Fatah movement that is being marginalized by Hamas, faces a defining moment. When he felt he and his allies were in physical danger these past few weeks, Abbas has shown that he has the desire and the wherewithal to tackle Hamas. Hitherto, he has been disinclined to impose himself in the cause of moderation. Will he do so now? As Olmert doggedly maintains "restraint" in the face of ongoing Kassam fire, against the wishes of his dovish defense minister, is Abbas now prepared to use his own security forces to tackle those terrorists? Will he send his men to thwart the smuggling of arms into Gaza? And will he, emulating Olmert, set out his own vision of peace, publicly articulated for Israelis and Palestinians alike to hear and internalize? Will he set about educating his people, from his place at the top of the hierarchy, about the Jews' right to a homeland in this region and the impossibility of a mass influx of refugees and their descendants to the Jewish state? Will he curb the incessant incitement against Israel disseminated in the official Palestinian media he controls? Will he relentlessly stress the message that the killing of innocents is not merely counterproductive to the Palestinian interest, as he often notes, but morally wrong? At considerable risk to his own people, despite the objections and warnings of many of his own security chiefs, and in defiance of recent grisly experience, the prime minister is trying to encourage Abbas to step up to the peacemaking plate. As Israel's intelligence chiefs seek to make sense of the overtures from Damascus, to discern whether or not the president of a nation that has always been formally at war with Israel is now serious about reconciliation, it is grimly ironic that all the evidence from a people that was supposed to have entered into a peace partnership with Israel a full 13 years ago is of determined and violent hostility at all costs. Olmert's rival has, to date, failed to show the public will to remake that mindset. He may never get another chance.