"How many divisions has the pope?" That was Joseph Stalin's curt dismissal of the perceived power of the papacy in World War II—a podium but no troops. The question might today be asked of Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader presuming to speak for the Palestinians at the Annapolis conference. He no longer controls the Gaza Strip, and his grip of the West Bank is so weak that even in his capital of Ramallah, Fatah lost to Hamas in the most recent mayoral election. Most intelligence assessments agree that Fatah has virtually ceased to exist in the West Bank; that instead of gaining strength after its debacle in Gaza, Fatah is weaker, having failed to curb terrorism or corruption. Fatah is simply unable to provide security to its people. Remove Israeli forces in the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority dies, with Hamas taking over. Hamas knows this. One senior Hamas official, Mahmoud al-Zahar, could not have captured Israeli anxieties any better when he recently said, "Fatah can't stop us from seizing control of those [West Bank] territories. It is only a matter of time."
The abject failure of Fatah to fight for Gaza when it cut and ran earlier this year has dramatically increased the Israeli fear that the same thing could happen in the West Bank. And where would that leave the Israelis, given the vulnerability of major cities like Tel Aviv to rocket fire?
Security breach. What the Israelis cannot forget, the Palestinians cannot remember. Nor, apparently, can the press. "Security" barely makes the list of requirements mentioned in the commentaries, but the harsh reality is that every time Israel has transferred security to the PA and its police, terrorism has followed. Look what happened after the Oslo "peace" agreement. In the decade before, 41 Israelis were murdered. In the decade after, 945 were murdered. When the Palestinians gained control of the West Bank cities, suicide bombers infiltrating Israel killed over a thousand people, ultimately forcing the Israelis to go back into the West Bank at great cost. When Israel withdrew from Gaza, Israeli greenhouses providing 4,500 jobs were turned over to the Palestinians. The PA security forces stood by as they were vandalized and looted. The United States forced the Israelis to accept that Fatah could be trusted to monitor the border crossing from Egypt and interdict weapons and terrorists. Within three days there was massive smuggling of men and weapons, so that every single day since Israel left Gaza, rockets have been aimed at nearby Israeli cities.
Fatah itself, for all the handshakes at Annapolis, does not even accept Israel as a valid country. Just a few weeks ago, its leaders surprised the Israelis and made clear that they will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state and, in effect, still do not support the United Nations Resolution of 1947 that provided for two states for two peoples—a "Jewish state" and an "Arab state." The State of Israel was not mentioned, for it would not be established until six months after the vote. But the state that was approved was the "Jewish state."
Stunningly, even in his speech at Annapolis, Abbas made two specific references to the Arab word for catastrophe, nakba, which is the way the Palestinians describe the creation of Israel in 1948. It is their code language for the destruction of the Israeli state, for it refers to Israel's existence and not to its boundaries.
Anybody who has visited the West Bank knows how much Fatah is dedicated to peace with Israel. The Fatah-controlled press and TV and the mosques reverberate with a continuous incitement to violence and hate. Suicide bombers are depicted as heroes. In recent polls, almost half of the Palestinian population would not accept Israel, even if there was a settlement. And Fatah still maintains its own terrorist wing, namely the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that has killed so many Israelis.
These are the hard facts that underlie the hoopla and photo ops in Washington. Given this reality, the only tinge of optimism derives from the fact that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to have established a decent working relationship and that Abbas himself realizes that the prospect of a viable state for the Palestinians under his leadership is receding, unless he seizes the moment and reclaims the political initiative from the Islamists of Hamas.
But can he? His political and military weakness compels him and the Palestinians to maximize their demands and forces the Israelis to be wary of concessions. The result is that the most each side is prepared to give may well fall short of what the other side is willing to accept. This is the fundamental conundrum.
It does not help that our administration keeps changing position. In a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon several years ago, President Bush indicated that a final-status agreement would not ask for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders; that the large Jewish settlement blocks would remain in Israeli hands; that there would not be a return of refugees and their descendants to Israel but to the new Palestinian state; and that Israel would be able to obtain "defensible borders." The last is critical because the previous borders were clearly not defensible. "Defensible borders" have long been recognized, first in the language of the definitive U.N. Council Resolution Section 242, then by former President Reagan and by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher on behalf of the Clinton administration in a January 1997 letter of assurances to the Israeli government. The Bush road map also insisted that "all official Palestinian institutions end incitement against Israel" and unequivocally pledge to recognize Israel's "right to exist in peace and security," a position supported by congressional resolution. These provisions were ignored in Bush's speech.