Palestinians' Choice: Abbas and Peace, Arafat and War

July 11, 2003

A crisis in the Palestinian leadership threatens to delay, if not derail, key talks in the fledgling Mideast peace process - and points to a fundamental crossroads Palestinians face.

To resolve the crisis, they finally must come to an honest assessment of what they want as a people: a difficult, pragmatic compromise with Israel that would result in a sovereign state, or a futile, all-or-nothing push for maximum territorial gain. It's as stark as that.

The crisis was precipitated by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' resignation this week from Fatah's leadership council, after he was attacked in public by council members and their leader, Yasser Arafat, for being too accommodating to Israel and Washington. His resignation was refused, but Abbas has now threatened to resign as prime minister unless he receives stronger support from Arafat and the council - a move that would bring the fledgling peace process to a complete halt.

To prop up Abbas' position, the United States has pledged to add $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, a significant departure from the current practice of funneling money to the PA through nongovernmental organizations. The shift will give Abbas greater control over the distribution of aid. It's a good step and might help Abbas boost his political standing.

But ultimately the Palestinians must make their choice, and not just between leaders.

Abbas, with little charisma or popularity among his people, is the consummate technocrat who has never touched a gun in anger and is averse to conflict. He stands for the reasonable pragmatists seeking a negotiated peace, even if it means giving up cherished dreams.

Arafat, the old war chieftain who's comfortable in battle fatigues with a gun strapped to his side, thrives on personal conflict.He is standard bearer for advocates of violent struggle to regain all the land Israel has taken in war and the right of Palestinians to return to homes in Israel - even if that means endless warfare.

It's more than a clash of personalities, it's a clash of fundamental political goals - one that will decide the fate of the Palestinian people and the prospects for Mideast peace.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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