President Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia and his speech in Cairo illustrate that he is firmly committed to a major outreach to the Muslim and Arab worlds. He is uniquely qualified to initiate a dialogue with those communities. The high point of the speech was his presentation of the best of American values: democracy, freedom of the individual, tolerance, and compromise to resolve differences by nonviolent means. But as everybody knows in their personal lives, it is always dangerous to court new friends if you risk doing it at the expense of old friends, in this case the long-standing friendship between Israel and America.
The president did call on Palestinians to abandon violence and to recognize past agreements and Israel's right to exist. But the sharper points in the eloquent speech—and certainly the references that won the most applause in Cairo—were on the new bromide that progress can begin only when Israel has frozen the settlements and committed itself to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The emphasis represents a retreat from the long-recognized principle that for a viable two-state solution the onus must first be on the Palestinians to establish a democratic government that can be entrusted with statehood. The danger of the shift of the Obama focus to Israel is that it encourages the Palestinians to sit back and just watch in the expectation that the United States, prodded by the Europeans and the jaundiced media, will force Israel to make critical concessions. As the president is fond of saying, let's be clear about this and a few other things—and first recognize the clarity of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a remarkable recent interview in the Washington Post, he insists that his only role is to wait until Israel meets his demands. He does not acknowledge that progress can be made only if both parties make concessions.
The president's call on Palestinians to "abandon violence" is fine, but it does not go far enough. Tomorrow's violence is seeded by today's incitement. The Palestinians also need to be warned off the incessant spewing of hatred against Israel in schools, mosques, and the media, especially TV. This poisoning of the mind of the next generation—the generation that may dominate a Palestinian state—is not just the stock in trade of Hamas and Hezbollah but also of the schools and media controlled by Fatah and reporting directly to Abbas. (Here is a perfect illustration: The Palestinians named their latest computer center after Dalal Mughrabi, who led the 1978 bus hijacking that killed 37 civilians, including 12 children and American photographer Gail Rubin.)
Furthermore, Abbas has to be told firmly and clearly that he must work harder to improve the lives of the Palestinians, starting with weeding out the corruption that has filched money away from the people. Fatah has so alienated the Palestinian population it has left a big open door for Hamas.
Let's be clear about Mahmoud Abbas himself, too. He is the Palestinian leader who rejected the most generous-ever outline for Palestinian statehood, put forward by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It was far more generous than the acclaimed Camp David settlement Yasser Arafat turned down nine years ago and for which Arafat was excoriated as an implacable enemy of peace.
Abbas's conviction that he need not make any compromises is manifest in his remark, "In the West Bank we have a good reality. We are having a good life." And it is manifest in the complacency with which he views the threat from Hamas. Abbas survives only because of massive economic aid from the West and massive support on security from Israel, which arrests many Hamas people every week. Abbas doesn't even have power in downtown Ramallah, where he lives and works, and his Fatah is so unpopular that, if elections were held today and the votes properly counted, it is probable that Hamas would win a majority.
If Hamas were to eject Fatah from the West Bank as it has done in Gaza, it would pose an insurmountable barrier to any diplomatic progress. An Israel that yielded land to trigger-happy Hamas would have no defensible border.