Hopes that President Bush would take advantage of what he called Israel's "courageous and painful" disengagement from Gaza to press the Palestinian Authority to finally begin dismantling the terror network were dashed last month when he appeared to retreat from that position.
That was the message beneath the surface of this week's presidential praise of Israel and Bush's call on Palestinians to "fight terrorism and govern in a peaceful way." He went on in his Saturday radio address on Aug. 27 to make a generic "demand (for) an end to terrorism and violence in every form."
Sounds tough at first glance, but missing was any clear insistence that the P.A. honor its road-map obligation to "arrest, disrupt and restrain" the extremists. White House aides acknowledged the retreat, explaining on background to reporters that the president is sympathetic to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' pleas that he is too weak to crack down on the terrorists and needs more time to consolidate his own security forces.
Bush aides say their boss' move is merely a tactical retreat. Abbas is trying to buy time until after the January parliamentary elections, when he will face an aggressive challenge from Hamas, and the White House is willing to give it to him, even if it means retreating from the joint U.S. and Israeli demand that the P.A. disarm the extremists, and become the only armed authority in areas under its jurisdiction.
While administration officials were speaking anonymously, P.A. officials were quite open in their rejection of any demand that they fulfill their most basic road-map requirements. Instead, they repeated their call for Bush to pressure Israel to move quickly to withdraw completely from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Abbas also announced that he has no intention of carrying out his map commitments before a Palestinian state is established. He thinks he can simply co-opt the Hamas gunmen by enlisting them in his security forces. Though he branded the Aug. 28 bombing in Beersheva – which injured at least 40 Israelis – a "terrorist attack," Abbas then went on to blame the matter on Israel for killing five Palestinians in Tulkarm four days earlier – terrorists wanted for the bombing of a Tel Aviv night club in February. Abbas chose not to lay the rightful onus on Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which claimed credit for both incidents.
The Beersheva bombing reinforced backing for the Israeli security fence, which has not been completed in that area of southern Israel. Bush's backtracking was followed within 24 hours by a resumption of Palestinian suicide bombings.
And while the president's prerecorded message was being broadcast here, another prerecorded message was released by a top Hamas official, telling Bush to mind his own business and warning the P.A. not to try confiscating his group's weapons. The Hamas videotape featured Muhammed Deif, the group's elusive top bomb-maker, who heads Israel's most-wanted list. He vowed to make Palestine "hell" for Israelis and wipe the Jewish state off the map.
Abbas speaks tough (sometimes), but he carries a little stick when it comes to fighting terror. His preference for friendly persuasion is one reason why the Beersheva bombing won't be the last. Abbas realizes that Hamas is the greatest threat to his political- and physical – survival. Confrontation, in fact, seems to be about the last thing on his agenda. His prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, met in Damascus this month with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, and agreed the P.A. would not try to disarm them.
Do today's Palestinian leaders avoid confronting the terrorists out of fear and weakness, or because they share Yasser Arafat's view that violence is a useful motivator for war-weary Israelis?
Israeli leaders want Abbas to prevail in January's elections, but they have to worry what price Israel will pay for President Bush's decision to ease pressure on the Palestinians to dismantle the terror network.
Still, Ariel Sharon, who faces a tough election battle himself, is not going to sit by and watch Palestinian extremists campaign for parliamentary seats by competing to show who can blow up the most Israelis.
Douglas M.Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.