The appointment of new commanders to lead a reformed Palestinian Authority security force would seem to be a step toward meeting one of the Palestinian Authority’s key obligations under the “road map” peace plan.
Yet far from winning plaudits for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, the move has hardly moved Israeli officials, who remain skeptical of Abbas’ ability to root out Palestinian terrorism.
Their concern reflects a deeply rooted lack of confidence in Palestinian capabilities and intentions, which could have far-reaching political ramifications: Pundits on both sides agree that unless the Palestinians convince Israel over the next few months that they are waging an effective anti-terrorist campaign, the chances of renewing peace talks after Israel’s scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank this summer are extremely remote.
In late April, Abbas announced a shake-up of the P.A. security set-up. The number of services would be reduced from 11 to three and would be put under new commanders: Suleiman Khellis in charge of the national security forces; Tareq Abu Rajab as head of military intelligence; and Alaa Hosni to lead the police.
The three services would be unified under the command of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, and more than 1,000 officers over 60 years old would be retired.
The reform signals a clear break with the past: Men appointed by the late President Yasser Arafat are out and new, younger commanders, not tainted by corruption, are in.
While Arafat was notorious for his deft manipulation of the plethora of armed organizations to consolidate his power and wage a terrorist war against Israel that couldn’t be traced back to him, the unified new force is intended to become an organ of state, dedicated to maintaining law and order and preventing terrorism.
Indeed, Abbas is presenting the force as a significant move toward implementation of his dictum of “one authority, one law and one gun” — in other words, a Palestinian entity with only one legal armed force and no rogue militias.
The trouble is that Israeli officials see the reform as merely a declaration of intent, rather than a done deal. Israeli officials point out that Abbas has done nothing so far to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad — which, they say, makes a mockery of the “one gun” claim.
Indeed, they note that Abbas has not even delivered on the deal he made with Israel on rogue militiamen wanted for their involvement in terrorism.
The Israelis demand that these men be disarmed and promise that once they are, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) will not target or arrest them. Instead, Abbas has allowed the wanted men to keep their weapons and join the Palestinian armed forces
“They don’t even bother to disarm them first. It’s pushing terror into the services and it’s like asking the cat to guard the cream,” Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim said.
Boim said Abbas’ biggest mistake has been his failure to demand that Hamas and Islamic Jihad hand in their weapons, not only because these might be turned on Israel but because one day they might be turned on Abbas himself.
Abbas claims his policy is working and that Hamas will hand in its weapons after participating in parliamentary elections scheduled for July. However, Hamas spokesman Mushir Al-Masri flatly denies this, saying Hamas will keep its weapons until Israel ends its “occupation” of Palestinian land.
The exchange highlights the difference between the Palestinian and Israeli approaches to the terrorist groups: Abbas wants to talk them into surrendering their weapons voluntarily; Israel wants to see a military-style clampdown before it takes Abbas’ “one-gun” slogan seriously.
The Palestinians argue that the relative quiet since Abbas took over in January shows they’re making progress in the fight against terrorism, even if they refuse to confront the radicals head-on.
Terror attacks are down by 80 percent, they say; there is security cooperation with Israel; and P.A. forces have foiled a number of attacks, in some cases even handing captured weapons and suicide belts to the IDF.
Moreover, they say, Abbas has not been given credit for his courage in dismissing the entire cadre of senior officers associated with Arafat — a move that pundits say could weaken Abbas’ Fatah movement before the upcoming elections.
Abbas complains that Israel is not giving him a chance. Last week he summoned Israeli journalists to his Ramallah office to make his case.
“There has not been a single minute without criticism, without complaints, without incitement — just like the first government I headed we can’t get a moment’s rest ... and just like during that first government, we are not being given a chance,” he protested.
The reference was to the brief period in 2003 when Abbas served as prime minister under Arafat.
The key question is what all this means for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer. Ostensibly, by reforming his security forces and helping to reduce terrorism significantly, Abbas has done enough to warrant engagement in peace talks within the framework of the “road map.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is hanging tough. In a string of Passover interviews, he repeated several times that Israel would not go forward with the road map — designed to lead eventually to a Palestinian state — unless the Palestinians meet their commitment to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure by disarming Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The United States supports Israel’s approach, Sharon claimed.
“I suggest that the progress be slow. I’m not saying it should be halted, but we must insist that their commitments are thoroughly met and we must not give an inch on their obligation to prevent smuggling, prevent terror, dismantle the terror organizations and stop producing weapons,” he said. “The Americans also don’t propose that we yield on these things.”
With Israel and the Palestinians divided over how much progress Abbas is making on his road-map obligations, it seems certain America will be asked to judge.
After his mid-April visit to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, Sharon claims he has the United States on his side.
Abbas will go to Washington in May in an attempt to redress the balance — and his well-timed security shake-up, announced just weeks ahead of the visit, will be one of his strongest cards.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report