The missed opportunity

Posted: Sep 12, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Abba Eban once famously said that the ``Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.'' The fall of moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- systematically destroyed by Yasser Arafat -- represents a spectacularly missed opportunity.

Abbas wanted to end the terror and cash in on the American promise of an independent Palestinian state. Arafat, whose unswerving objective is a Palestinian state built on the ruins of Israel and who will not put down the gun until he gets it, undermined Abbas from the very beginning. He now has chosen a puppet as his new prime minister.

For 56 years, every time the Palestinians were offered the possibility of a state side-by-side with Israel, they chose rejection and violence.

In 1947, the United Nations offered them the first Palestinian state in history. Led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem who had spent the war years in Berlin as a supporter of Hitler, they rejected the offer, made war, and ended up with a vast Palestinian diaspora.

In 1978, the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel offered the Palestinians a five-year period of autonomy, during which negotiations for final status would be conducted. They might have had their own state 20 years ago. They rejected the offer -- and the treaty -- out of hand.

Precisely 10 years ago this Saturday, the Oslo accord was signed, bringing Arafat and the PLO back to Palestine for what was supposed to be a historic reconciliation with Israel. Rather than making peace and establishing new Palestinian institutions, Arafat used the next decade to turn the Palestinian territories into an armed camp -- a ``trojan horse,'' as Palestinian moderate Faisal Husseini openly admitted, for renewed war on Israel.

Abbas was lucky to lose only his job. At previous hinge points in Middle Eastern history, those advocating compromise and peace met a harsher fate. Jordan's King Abdullah, grandfather of King Hussein, was assassinated in 1951. Three months after Anwar Sadat addressed the Israeli Knesset, one of his top advisers, Youssef Sebai, editor of the al-Ahram newspaper, was assassinated in Cyprus. The moderate intellectual Dr. Issam Sartawi was assassinated in Portugal in 1983.

Abbas' fall is only the latest chapter in this tragic story of the Palestinians' repeated decision to refuse the dignity of independence if it meant accepting Israel. Every peace plan, every road map, every truce is bound to fail until the Palestinians make a historic collective decision to accept half a loaf and build their state within it.

What should the United States do now? The editorialists are issuing the usual knee-jerk call for the Bush administration to intensify its efforts in the peace process.

What peace process? Intensify efforts with whom? With Arafat -- who is behind the terror, who destroyed Abbas, who will never sign a peace treaty and whose commitment to war-until-victory is as enduring as was Ho Chi Minh's and Mao Zedong's?

The United States went a very long way toward the Palestinians by issuing the road map and the guarantee of statehood if they dismantled the terror apparatus, stopped the murderous incitement, and began the process of reconciliation. Abbas appeared ready to take that road. Which is why Arafat brought him down.

The fundamental principle of U.S. policy now must be to prove that Abbas was right. That means no negotiations with Arafat or with any new prime minister beholden to him. That means supporting Israel in its war on terror. And that means not only supporting military responses to atrocities such as the double suicide bombings on Tuesday -- responses such as the expulsion of Arafat -- it also means reconsidering the administration's puzzling opposition to the Israeli security fence.

The fence is a uniquely effective way to stop suicide bombing. We know that because not a single Palestinian suicide bomber has come out of Gaza, where there already is a fence.

The fence not only will save lives by preventing suicide attacks, it will change the strategic equation by neutralizing the terror weapon. Without that card to play, the Palestinians will have an incentive to rethink the Abbas option and to renew the tentative step that he represented of settling with the Jews by dividing the land.

If the fence is built, yes, some Palestinians will be cut off from their fields. On the other hand, if the fence is not built, innocent people on the other side will be blown to bits. Which of these two misfortunes is the more morally compelling?

When the Palestinians finally retire Arafat and find their new Abbas, the fence can come down. In the meantime, a barrier to terror is not just a strategic but a moral imperative.