The results of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's most recent visit to the Middle East – intended to facilitate Israel's planned disengagement from Gaza and parts of northern Samaria – can best be described as profoundly disappointing.
The hastily planned trip was intended to calm a deteriorating situation caused by an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing outside a Netanya shopping mall on July 12, and relentless bombardments of Gaza and western Negev communities by Hamas.
Regrettably, not only did Rice's trip afford no calm, it coincided with an even further deterioration of the security situation – here, in Sharm el-Sheik and in Beirut.
Speaking in Ramallah, following talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the secretary struck precisely the wrong tone.
Though Abbas has candidly reneged on his road-map commitments to confiscate weapons and explosives in the hands of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and those elements within his own Fatah movement aligned with the rejectionists, Rice nevertheless complimented the Palestinian leadership for taking "important steps" against the rejectionists.
Whatever "steps" she was referring to were left to the imagination: Perhaps it was Abbas' goal of incorporating all the terrorists under the rubric of the P.A.'s security forces; or perhaps it was the belated, uneven, largely ineffective and now apparently suspended efforts by P.A. Interior Minister Nasser Youssef to put an end to Palestinian lawlessness – not for Israel's sake, but for the Palestinians themselves.
Whatever the "steps," and with just several weeks to disengagement remaining, Abbas' aversion to taking on the rejectionists helped make possible the July 23 murder of husband and wife Dov and Rachel Kol, who'd gone to Gush Katif to visit family in Ganei Tal. The attack also left the area's intrepid civilian security coordinator, Ami Shaked, and several others wounded.
Moreover, whatever "steps" Rice had in mind, further catastrophe was averted – no thanks to the P.A. – on July 22, when the Israel Defense Force caught a would-be suicide bomber from Abbas' own Fatah movement on his way to blow up a crowded Tel Aviv nightspot.
The terrorist, wearing a 5-kilogram explosive belt packed with nails (to maximize suffering) infiltrated from Gaza's perimeter fence near Kibbutz Nir-Am. Another infiltrator – married to a woman from Jaffa, and thus enjoying unimpeded access inside Israel – was tasked with delivering the bomber to his target.
All told, 92 infiltration attempts into Israel from Gaza have been thwarted by Israeli security forces since the beginning of 2005. But this latest effort was the first successful penetration from inside Gaza in seven months.
In this context, Rice's admiration for the "steps" Abbas has taken to curb Palestinian terror rings hollow. And yet, Rice went on to compound her pathetic stance with an even more egregious avowal: "When the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be sealed or isolated, with the Palestinian people holed in. … We are committed to the connectivity of Gaza and the West Bank."
Does the secretary of state genuinely envisage that Israel would simply open up the gates of Gaza – and compound an already massive security headache – even as the Palestinian leadership refuses to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure?
The longer the Bush administration coddles Abbas and allows him to weasel out of crushing the rejectionists – and thus, his road-map commitments – the less likely it is that Israel's withdrawal will be a precursor to any fruitful future negotiations.
Illustrating the chasm, P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat has demanded Israel cease all anti-terrorist operations, halt construction of the security barrier, and thus open itself up to an even greater onslaught.
Rather than pretend that the P.A. is meeting its obligations, Rice should warn Abbas that America's patience is running out, that he has wasted a golden opportunity to meet Israel halfway, and that U.S. backing for his regime is not unconditional.
At the same time, absent rudimentary Palestinian cooperation for disengagement – which was, after all, conceived as a unilateral response to the intransigence of Yasser Arafat – the Bush administration should expect that Jerusalem will be in no mood to be magnanimous to Arafat's similarly uncompromising heirs the "day after" disengagement.
Elliot Jager is deputy editorial-page editor of The Jerusalem Post.