When Joe Biden predicted that the new president would face a grave international crisis within six months, he didn't specify where it might come from. He presumptuously said it would be President Obama and was duly criticized. But he was right about the coming crisis. The new president will soon face a momentous challenge in the Middle East, which has gone from bad to worse to horrible.
The critical factor is that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has lost the capacity to deliver anything—and his term as president of the Palestinian Authority is up around the day our new president takes the oath. Abbas's predecessor, Yassir Arafat, was capable of acting against the will of the more radical Hamas. He had the charisma Abbas lacks—along with leadership skills, ruthlessness, and a killer instinct. But Arafat blew the best chance ever for a Middle East settlement, gravely misjudging Israel's will by launching a second intifada. Meanwhile, in a Gaza free of Israeli occupation, the Palestinians chose to rain rockets on Israel, never even attempting to build a new state.
Hamas has emerged as the stronger faction, perhaps strong enough to undermine any agreement Abbas could negotiate. It now controls Gaza. In the West Bank, Hamas has established a vast network of social welfare organizations and has been slowly building up a kind of shadow regime by infiltrating the government bureaus. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents the Quartet negotiators (United States, Russia, European Union, and United Nations), recognized the situation on the ground when he said recently, Europeans don't understand that, "if Israel got out of the West Bank tomorrow, Hamas would take over."
Promoting hate. Abbas has weakened his own ability to maneuver by tolerating the promotion of hate and incitement of violence against Israel and Jews in general, from virtually every public platform in the West Bank. The Palestinian suicide bomber comes directly out of an ethos that says, "Blessed is the suicide bomber for he is a national hero." This hatred, with its calls for terrorism and jihad, is inculcated in the Palestinians' education system and in their public media. Rejectionism remains at the core of Palestinian politics and has contributed to the defeat of every partition plan proposed from the dawn of Zionism to the present day.
That is why, when Abbas speaks in Arabic to his own people, he speaks in much more radical terms than what we hear in the West. Witness the recent Palestinian cartoon that depicted the Palestinian state as covering all of the territories from the West Bank to the Mediterranean—including pre-1967 Israel—totally wrapped in a Palestinian flag draped over a rifle. The ends and the means of this message could not be clearer.
The West has sought to strengthen Abbas economically and with weapons in the hopes that he could create a viable and responsible state. Perversely, the billions of aid dollars from around the world have contributed to a corrupt Fatah elite that has alienated more Palestinians than the loss of any modest improvement these funds could have contributed to their basic living conditions.
That is why Fatah lost the elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006 to Hamas and why Fatah security forces were routed in Gaza in 2006 in a matter of a few days. The Fatah security forces were so weak that the leadership left Gaza without even fighting, many of them retreating to their grand villas in Cairo, all witnessed on Palestinian television—yet another humiliation for Fatah.
In Jenin, one can see what good leadership can yield. There, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad established a unified security service. Now, instead of the anarchy of armed gangs dominating the streets, there is a sense of an overwhelming presence of the Palestinian security forces restoring law and order. The Israeli military cooperated by providing amnesty to members of the militias and gangs for past crimes if they laid down their weapons and renounced violence. Palestinian security forces have replaced the Israeli security forces, which are symbols of an occupation. The hope is that Jenin will be a model for other cities, given the widespread lawlessness in the West Bank. The problem is that the militias biding their time have an estimated 120,000 weapons under the floorboards. As a former military governor of Jenin and Bethlehem pointed out, "Fatah may have the weapons but Hamas has the people behind it...the great fear of the Fatah forces is that, in a showdown, the Palestinian public will side with Hamas." Even Abbas can't move around freely in the West Bank outside his headquarters in Ramallah because his people are not in control.