Cautious optimism pervades the state of Israel, but "cautious" is the operative word. If Mahmoud Abbas is not Yasser Arafat, neither is he George Washington (or even U.S. Grant or Warren Harding). You still can't find Israel on a map of the Middle East in a Palestinian schoolbook.
Even if the new president of the Palestinian Authority holds the best of intentions, he still has to prove them on two fronts. Not only must he stop today's terrorists, but he must prevent the next generation from becoming terrorists tomorrow. If this doesn't put him between a rock and a hard place, he's in a close place between the Red and Dead Seas.
The first terrorist attack on his watch illustrates his problem in doublethink proportions. The official media of the Palestinian Authority loudly condemned the suicide bomber, but undercut the condemnation by limiting its criticism to doubts about the politics of the naive. The killing wasn't wrong, exactly, but "badly timed." The young killers were, as usual, glamorized and presented as martyrs with bad timing. An enormous color photograph of the "executor" of the Tel Aviv terror on the front page of Al-Hayat Al-Jajid gave him the look of a movie star. He was described as a "shahid," one who dies for Allah at the highest level of achievement.
"The presentation of terrorism as legitimate 'resistance,' together with the honoring of terrorists, both past and present, was a cornerstone of Palestinian Authority (PA) ideology and society during the Arafat era," Itamar Marcus, director of the Israeli-based Palestinian Media Watch, told a group of correspondents and columnists over lunch in Washington the other day. "It continues today under the administration of Mahmoud Abbas."
You can't walk through a neighborhood in most Muslim communities without being exposed to a street, school or stadium honoring a terrorist. Gaza alone has more than 300 streets named for shahids. Sports tournaments and teams of teenagers are named for "shahids." Girls' schools are named for a popular medieval heroine who converted to Islam and who celebrates the death of her martyr sons. Girls are encouraged to follow in her footsteps.
No one should expect the Palestinians to erase their evil deeds from their history books overnight, but putting evil aside has to start somewhere. America's financial assistance to the Palestinians is funneled through the United States Agency for International Development. In August 2002, when USAID discovered that it was funding renovations in a school named for a woman terrorist who killed 36 people, including an American photographer, the State Department froze the funding until the name was removed. The Palestinians changed the name and 24 hours later the funds were unfrozen. Predictably, the terrorist's name is back on the school. In fact, it was one of the sites of voting in the recent municipal elections.
The White House trusts that Abbas has begun to fight terrorism and to eliminate the images that inspire suicide bombers. But we've also been warned by General Moshe Ya'alon, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces that it's premature to be "intoxicated" by the current calm: "As long as Abbas fails to collect arms from the terror groups, the conflict will not end." As long as suicide bombers are hailed as heroes, the conflict will not end.
Many critics of the Palestinians, especially those in Congress, think the current calm is merely the eye of the storm. That's why the House of Representatives approved a foreign aid package last week that forbade the direct financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority that President Bush asked for. Financial aid was increased, but with strings attached that denies President Bush the authority to waive restrictions for "national security reasons". Congress is operating on a variation of President Regan's famous admonition: "Trust, but verify."
One positive verifiable change is the ability of the Palestinian media to expose corruption in the Palestinian Authority's misuse of foreign financial assistance. A recent editorial in one newspaper criticized ministers and members of the Legislative Council for purchasing luxury cars: "How can it be that the Ministry of Finance cannot guarantee a sum of 150 shekels (U.S. $35) for one soldier's salary, while it can guarantee a sum of $76,000 for a new car for a minister, who already has an excellent government car in very good condition."
Such criticism, says Itamar Marcus, "was unheard-of for many years." We must hope that criticism can be now turned on the terrorists as well. It's only hope, but even hope is a big deal in the Middle East.