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Kerry Misreads Palestinian Unrest

In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has taken to warning Israel that if it doesn’t give away more of its positions in the peace talks with the Palestinians, it will face a third intifada. Though it is unlikely that any Israeli concessions would be enough to convince Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that he should risk everything by ending the conflict, Kerry’s threat is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though this may not be his intention, by speaking in this manner Kerry is sending a clear message to the Palestinians that any violence will be considered justified by Washington. The question is, do a string of recent events indicate that the Palestinians are listening to him?

Yesterday, Israelis celebrated the quick wits of a bus driver whose alert reaction saved the lives of his passengers after a bomb was discovered on the vehicle. The terrorist attack failed, but the prospect of a return to bus bombings—this was the first such attempt in over a year—was a reminder that Palestinian terror groups are poised to return to violence. But rather than this constituting an incentive for Israel to bend to Abbas’s demands, the ferment in the territories shows just how unlikely it is that the PA is strong enough to make the decision to make peace or to defend it against opponents.

While the mainstream international press continues to parrot Kerry’s line about the PA being a peace partner, the rumblings in the Palestinian street indicate, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports, that Abbas’s Fatah Party wants no part of the talks:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may soon have to come up with a new plan to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas solve internal problems in ruling his Fatah faction.

The only plan that Kerry has thus far proposed is one that talks about future security arrangements between a Palestinian state and Israel. What Kerry and the State Department are probably unaware of is that Fatah, Israel’s “peace partner,” is in urgent need of a plan to rid it of its internal disputes. What the U.S. seems not to understand is that a weak, divided and discredited Fatah will never be able to sign any agreement with Israel. A series of events over the past few weeks have left many Palestinians wondering if Fatah will ever be able to recover and rehabilitate itself in the aftermath of its defeat by Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election. These events have also raised questions as to Abbas’ ability to rein in and control his own loyalists in Fatah. Abbas, it seems, has lost control not only over the Gaza Strip, but also his Fatah faction.

As Abu Toameh notes, the expulsion of a leading activist and member of the Palestinian parliament from Fatah illustrates the false premise at the heart of Kerry’s quest. If Abbas is not able to command the loyalty of his own faction, its difficult to imagine how he could ever sell peace to a Palestinian public that continues to view radical factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with favor.

The Fatah activist in question is Jamal Abu al Rub, who goes by the charming nickname of “Hitler” among fellow Palestinians. Abu al Rub apparently beat up Arafat ally Jibril Rajoub and paid for it with his Fatah membership card. But apparently many in Fatah, especially in the Jenin area, back “Hitler” and the blowback from the confrontation may not be over.

This development may be unrelated to the recent upsurge in violence in the West Bank against Israelis, rocket firings from Gaza, or the bus attack yesterday that was publicly applauded by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But added together they point to the fact that there is little appetite among Palestinians for any concessions on Abbas’s part that would make peace possible.

Despite Kerry’s focus on what Israel should be giving up in the talks, their success still hinges on Abbas’ giving up Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees and the PA being willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Since Abbas has not indicated any willingness to do either of those things and has repeatedly refused to do the latter in principle, its hard to imagine the talks Kerry has sponsored succeeding.

The prospect of another intifada should rightly worry the United States as well as Israel, but if Kerry is really concerned about nipping it in the bud he is going about it in the wrong way. The only way to ensure that Palestinian violence won’t bubble over into another terrorist offensive in which Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad will compete is to make it clear to Abbas that such a turn of events would be more dangerous for his tenure than the peace he seems to fear so much.

Abbas is giving every indication that he is too weak to make peace, but he is not so weak that he can’t defend his rule against dissidents if it came to it. But instead of pushing him to take decisions that are bound to strengthen Hamas, this is the moment when Kerry should be sending a message to the Palestinians that if they resort to violence, all bets are off. Absent that, and with the U.S. acting as if they will blame Israel rather than Abbas for the all-but-certain failure of the peace initiative, Washington may be setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to an explosion that neither Kerry nor Abbas will be able to control.


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