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A Hands-Off Strategy

This column was written by Fred Barnes.


Sometimes diplomats should abandon their diplomacy, negotiators their talks, world leaders their calls for aggressive pursuit of a grand solution. And now is such a time in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. For the foreseeable future, no diplomacy will work, no talks will be fruitful, and no solution is possible. It is time for the United States, the Quartet and its new envoy Tony Blair, the United Nations, Arab states, and everybody else to stand down.

Doing nothing can produce clarity where, for the moment, there is none. Who represents, and can reliably negotiate for, the Palestinians? Is it Hamas, which has taken over Gaza and turned it into a terrorist enclave? Hamas, of course, is pledged to destroy Israel, not seek a peace settlement. Or is it Fatah, the corrupt organization founded by Yasir Arafat and now headed by Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah, which rules the West Bank, is eager to revive negotiations with Israel immediately. But Abbas and Fatah can't provide the one thing Israel requires, security.

The civil war now raging between Hamas and Fatah will presumably decide who leads the Palestinians. Hamas, with Gaza in hand, vows to seize the West Bank and complete its capture of the Palestinian territories. If Hamas wins, that would at least clear up the question of who's in charge. And it would make any peace talks useless with a partner who has flatly and vehemently rejected peace with Israel.

For now, the United States, the European Union, and even the Israeli government are trying to build up Abbas in hopes he and Fatah can defeat Hamas. This is fine. Abbas is the lesser of two evils. The problem is we don't know if he will win. And if he does, we don't know whether he could govern effectively and live up to any promises he might make in a peace settlement. As Martin Peretz has pointed out, Abbas is a "civilized man but he doesn't control his troops."

So it makes no sense to insist on peace talks now between Fatah and the Israelis. What could they possibly achieve of real value or permanence? Nothing at all. Instead, talks would consist solely of extracting concessions from Israel designed to strengthen Abbas in his struggle with Hamas. But short of total capitulation to Palestinian demands, Israel could never give up enough to assure a Fatah victory. Fatah will have to win on its own. By offering concessions to Abbas, however, Israeli leaders would run the risk of making their country less secure.

One more thing about Abbas. Being the enemy of Hamas does not make him the friend of Israel. Despite promises, Abbas has never shut down the terrorist militias that are an integral part of Fatah. And he has done nothing to prepare the Palestinian people for peace with Israel. Both in schools and on Palestinian television, the message, taught relentlessly, is that Israelis are wicked and that killing them is a noble enterprise.

Moreover, the Palestinians had the chance, post-9/11, to turn away from terrorism and, as Fouad Ajami noted in U.S. News and World Report, "signal their desire for normalcy." They faced a defining moment, Ajami said, in which "they could opt for the forces of order, tie their fate and their cause to sobriety and realism, or ride with the outlaws." The Palestinians chose the outlaws, electing Hamas to a majority in their parliament last year, then standing by as Hamas seized control of Gaza last month.

Listening to the words of Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert when they met last week in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, you might have thought Ajami wrong and the moment ripe for a peace agreement. "It is time to relaunch the peace process," Abbas said. "I don't intend to let this opportunity pass," Olmert said. No doubt Abbas meant it. Olmert, to give him the benefit of the doubt, knows better. He was merely paying lip service to the popular (but erroneous) notion that a viable peace process is just waiting to be started up again.

Amazingly enough, American politicians also buy this notion. In his speech last week urging a pullback in Iraq, Republican senator Richard Lugar of Indiana said America's credibility in the Middle East depends on our addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, dealing "effectively" with that and with the problem of dependence on Persian Gulf oil, "could be as valuable to our long-term security as the achievement of a stable, pro-Western government in Iraq," Lugar said.

He conceded that the rise of Hamas "complicates efforts to put the peace process back on track But even if a settlement is not an immediate possibility, we have to demonstrate clearly that the United States is committed to helping facilitate a negotiated outcome." Do we really? Of course not. It's not the U.S. commitment that's in doubt.

What's in doubt is the Palestinians' commitment. Do they really want to negotiate a reasonable peace settlement with Israel? Their actions suggest they don't. In time, they may change their mind. They may decide on a wiser course than being represented by terrorists or weaklings. Peace negotiations in which they're treated as victims deserving of Israeli concessions won't help them make that decision.

Better to let time play its role and events take their course.
By Fred Barnes
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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