Commentary: Action Needed to Bolster Abbas

Feb. 9, 2005 — -- This week's summit meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt is a welcome first step in a long, complex and risky journey.

Its importance is symbolic and psychological, not substantive. The two parties could not agree on a joint declaration of a cease-fire or signatures on a document. Instead, they announced a de facto cease-fire.

Major differences exist between the Palestinian and Israeli leadership on security and the political-diplomatic track. There is a long distance to travel to reach the safe harbor of peace.

I do not mean to belittle the significance of the Israeli-Arab gathering in Egypt. On the contrary, it has created a new momentum and, if concrete steps are taken in the weeks and months ahead, the dynamics of Palestinian-Israeli relations could positively change.

In the last four years, the drums of war drowned calls for politics, diplomacy and rationality. Now, the equation is being reversed. After their confidence-building measures, it would be reassuring to see if the two sides would move forward and tackle the thorny issues of peace-making, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, Israeli security, Jewish settlements, the status of east Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Rock and a Hard Place

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is caught between a rock -- American and Israeli demands to put an end to the armed Intifada (which he didunilaterally) -- and a hard place -- Hamas and Jihad's calls on him to remain steadfast and not to make further concessions. Abbas has to show Palestinian public opinion that he is making progress. He has to convince his people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Palestinians are observing Abbas very closely to see if he can deliver the goods. If Israel and the United States are genuine about this new hopeful moment, they must work hard to support Abbas and give Palestinians a stake in the future.

Although Abbas convinced Hamas and Jihad, radical Islamist organizations, to agree to a temporary cease-fire, the latter's spokesmen in the Gaza Strip struck a cautionary note, saying they would evaluate the summit before committing themselves to halting their military campaign against Israeli occupation.

"We agreed before with Mahmoud Abbas that if he succeeds to achieve our national goals, he should come back to the Palestinian factions to discuss the issue, and after that we will decide our stand," said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader.

After the summit, Hamas said it was not bound by the cease-fire announced by Abbas. His declaration "expresses only the position of the Palestinian Authority. It does not express the position of the Palestinian movements," said Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri.

Results Needed

Indeed, Abbas faces major hurdles at home. His hands are tied and his options are limited. He must show progress on the peace process and also must improve the quality of Palestinian life. If he does not, he won't last for too long. Hamas would likely inherit the spoils.

Abbas' social power base is dangerously narrow. Only 46 percent of eligible voters actually voted in the recent presidential elections, of which Abbas won 60 percent. This is in contrast to the 78 percent turnout that the late Arafat elicited in 1996 when he was elected head of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas must expand his social power base and create alliances with other groups who can foster dialogue and action on structural reforms within the PA. The most existential challenge facing Abbas is the need to "put the Palestinian house in order," which he must do if he is to rebuild its shattered institutions. He will unlikely last for too long unless he delivers on the home front (rooting out corruption) and the peace process.

Put Pressure on Israel

The United States and the international community must impress on Ariel Sharon the need to tackle the big questions relating to a viable Palestinian state. This fact implies a willingness to delineate the borders of this state, its capital and address the question of Jewish settlements, and finding a just solution to Palestinian refugees.

It is not enough for the United States and Israel to heap praise on Abbas. President Bush, who had refused to meet with Arafat, said he was impressed by Abbas' commitment to fighting terror.

"What you're watching is a process unfolding where people are becoming more trustworthy," the president said.

On her trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised to play an active role in the peace process and talked common sense to both Israelis and Palestinians. But she also tried to lower expectations and stressed the primary role of regional actors themselves. The Bush administration appears to be mainly concerned about confidence-building measures between the antagonists and security, not plunging fully into high-level, shuttle diplomacy.

But if history serves as a guide, no major progress could be achieved in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making without active engagement by the president and his senior aides. The weight of the presidency is vital to a breakthrough there.

Abbas cannot go home empty-handed and negotiate with Hamas and Jihad for a permanent cease-fire. Public opinion polls show clearly that Palestinians do support Hamas and Jihad's armed campaign against Israeli military occupation. Abbas has to convince Palestinian public opinion that his vision and path will ultimately bring peace and independence, not Hamas or Jihad's.

It is crucial that Israel act now to release Palestinian prisoners (who number around 8,000), withdraw its troops from Palestinian cities and towns, and begin to dismantle settlements on the West Bank. A viable peace settlement is the safest way to marginalize Hamas and Jihad and ensure Israeli security in the longer term.

Achieving a breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli track will likely reduce tensions in Iraq and the region as well as hammer a deadly nail in the coffin of extremism and "bin Ladenism."

Fawaz Gerges, an ABC News analyst, holds the Christian A. Johnson chair in Middle East and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and is the author of the forthcoming "The Jihadists: Unholy Warriors" (Harcourt Press).