To hurt or help Hamas
No one wins if the Palestinian Authority collapses.

May 24, 2006

AS ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert chatted with President Bush on Tuesday during his first official visit to the United States, the Palestinian territories he left behind were degenerating into anarchy that could lead to civil war. That may have been the aim when the two leaders cut off the flow of money to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas — a group committed to the destruction of Israel and listed by the United States as a terrorist organization — won parliamentary elections in January. But neither Israel nor the United States is going to like the result if the Palestinian government collapses.

Much of the Palestinian Authority's $1.9-billion annual budget is funded by foreign aid, which the United States and the European Union are no longer supplying. The government also relies on tax revenue collected by Israel, amounting to about $55 million a month, which has been cut off. As a result, the Palestinian Authority's 165,000 employees haven't been paid in more than two months.

The deprivation, combined with an intense political rivalry between the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah party led by President Mahmoud Abbas, have sent armed militants into the streets and sparked high-level assassination attempts and open gun battles between the factions.

As with everything involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there's no easy way to defuse the crisis gripping the Palestinian Authority. Western governments are correct in withholding aid from Hamas, which must be compelled to renounce terrorism and accept Israel's right to exist. At the same time, the loss of outside assistance is causing enormous hardship and further destabilizing an already shaky government.

Terrorism thrives amid anarchy; the collapse of the government would undo years of effort to prepare the Palestinians to manage a state of their own and probably would only strengthen Hamas and other terrorist groups.

Finding the right way to provide humanitarian aid while not supporting Hamas is a tricky challenge, though the European Union is on the right track. On Tuesday, government ministers endorsed an aid package that would funnel money to U.N. aid agencies and the International Red Cross. That's far preferable to the approach being taken by Congress. The House approved a measure Tuesday that would cut most U.S. aid to nongovernmental organizations working in the Palestinian territories and deny visas to members of the Palestinian Authority. This ham-handed attempt to appear tough on terror, opposed by the Bush administration, would cause needless suffering to the innocent and goes too far in micromanaging U.S. contacts with the Palestinian Authority.

Olmert's main goal during his visit to Washington was to persuade Bush to sign on to his plan to withdraw from most West Bank settlements while keeping the larger outposts intact so they eventually would be included within Israel's borders — something Olmert wants to do without the Palestinians' approval. Bush praised the notion in principle but implied that Israel really should come to a negotiated solution.

Bush was right not to give a full endorsement; it's far too soon to consider such unilateral action, which would inflame the Arab world.

If the Palestinian government can be kept from falling apart, it may yet produce a more responsible negotiating partner.