Disarray Among the Palestinians

January 17, 2006

One critical question lost in the hubbub over who will succeed Ariel Sharon is whether there will be any valid authority left among the Palestinians when the Israelis sort out their politics. A report last week by Steven Erlanger of The New York Times paints an alarming picture of a bankrupt, powerless and divided Palestinian Authority.

Fatah, the late Yasir Arafat's movement, is split, while the militant and political group Hamas is gaining strength by the day. The teeming Gaza Strip, recently evacuated by Israeli settlers, is on the verge of civil war. For some Israelis, this is proof that they don't have a negotiating partner and ought to move ahead with Mr. Sharon's plan to separate Israelis and Palestinians by putting a security barrier around areas that Israel wishes to keep and withdrawing from the areas it doesn't want. But reality isn't that simple. Israel has a stake in keeping Palestinians from descending further into chaos.

So far the only reaction from Israel has been the same refrain, this time issued by the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who says that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, must do more to crack down on terrorism. Mr. Abbas has not been a very effective leader, and the Palestinian Authority has been riddled with corruption and incompetence. But it has also been systematically undermined by Israeli policies since the second intifada began. Mr. Sharon's military attacks in the West Bank and the isolation of Yasir Arafat stripped the self-weakened Palestinian Authority of much of its remaining capacity for governing.

Any elected government stands or falls on its ability to deliver security and jobs, and the authority was left unable to provide either. When Mr. Abbas came to power and said the things Mr. Arafat could never bring himself to say about Palestinian violence's being counterproductive, Israel gave him only marginal support. Israel is right to press Mr. Abbas to follow up his words with deeds, and to do more to crack down on terror, starting with his own Fatah movement. But Israelis also need to recognize that he is not politically or militarily strong enough at this time to achieve victory.

Mr. Olmert deserves credit for lifting Israel's opposition to Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem. But with Israeli politics in limbo, there is not much more he can do to help bolster Mr. Abbas's standing before the vote on Jan. 25. Western donor countries can help by at least ensuring that the Palestinian Authority does not go bankrupt. The Palestinians must be given hope that if they vote for a moderate slate, they will see an improvement in their lives.

Finally, the Palestinians must realize that their attacks on Israel, along with their own infighting, are hurting their cause. Palestinians will not get anywhere close to a road map showing the way toward their own state if they continue to give hard-line Israeli politicians an excuse to stay away from peace talks.