Ten years ago, Mahmoud Abbas accompanied Yasser Arafat to Washington, D.C., where he signed the Oslo Accords. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus reported the atmosphere: "Out on the South Lawn, the mood was festive. The invited guests -- including members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, diplomats and Who's Who of those who had sought to make peace in the Middle East for decades -- chatted and snapped photographs. ... The crowd, rising to its feet as the dignitaries entered the lawn, seemed most eager to see Arafat. ... When Abbas shook hands with Rabin and Peres, the audience reacted almost viscerally, with a collective "Whoa!" sweeping the crowd. Then, as Clinton almost physically propelled Rabin and Arafat toward each other, the cheer was even more intense and the crowd stood in awe at what it had witnessed."
As that ceremony demonstrated, we Americans desperately wish for peace in the Middle East. There's nothing wrong with that, provided we don't allow wishful thinking to cloud our judgment.
Throughout the decade that followed that ceremony on the White House lawn, Palestinians, aided by Arab states, continued to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. As Natan Sharansky mordantly observes, Americans and Israelis convinced themselves that it was good to make a deal with a terrorist and dictator like Arafat, because he would have the power to "crack down" on Hamas and other violent elements within Palestinian society.
In reality, it was Arafat's illegitimacy, among other factors, that doomed peace prospects. Could this corrupt terrorist, head of at least a dozen different security agencies and holder of the purse strings of the whole Palestinian Authority, give up the terror that justified his position? Of course not.
Fascists and tyrants make war. It wasn't just that Arafat proved unwilling to crack down on Hamas and the rest. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, part of his Fatah organization, carried out much of the killing. When Bill Clinton told Arafat, at one point in the negotiations, "Yasser, you're going to have to get a desk," he was hitting upon the heart of the problem. Arafat was never going to permit the kind of peace that would force him to retire to deskwork.
President Bush has departed from the usual American script in these matters by first insisting upon new Palestinian leadership. That took guts. The State Department, the United Nations and the European Union would have continued to serve tea to Arafat forever. But how much of a change does the mere appointment of Mahmoud Abbas represent?