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Divorce, Israeli style

| Thursday, April 13, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank

"We are ready," Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), told me. "I am the head of the Authority. I have already recognized Israel, and I am against terrorism." He thereby implied that the world should deal with him if it refuses to talk Hamas.

That was a bold approach by a pragmatic statesman often accused of excessive caution. He was suggesting there is no need for Israel and its Western allies to deal with the PA's new Hamas government, which has refused to recognize Israel and forswear violence. Yet, during more than an hour's conversation at PA headquarters, Abbas seemed more desperate than bold. The Palestinian government faces bankruptcy after losing Israeli, U.S. and European Union funding, with Hamas adamant against yielding to conditions for turning on the money tap.

A key adviser to the Palestinian president, however, told me it is impossible for the rest of the world to deal with Abbas and bypass Hamas after it has scored a sweeping parliamentary election victory over Abbas' Fatah party. With the PA out of money and divided, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is free to pursue unilateral border revision, based on the ongoing security wall fencing off Palestinians that high-placed officials approvingly call an instrument of divorce. That produces a sense of foreboding among Israelis and Palestinians as their tragic struggle enters a new phase.

The elected president of the PA can't be blamed for feeling bitter. Abbas was welcomed by the West with relief as a prudent successor to the dangerously unreliable Yasser Arafat. Now, his pleas to resume payments to the PA go unanswered. He did get good news during our conversation with a call from Norway. The Norwegian government agreed to consider restoring its funding, and Abbas is off to Oslo next month.

If it does reconsider, Norway would get an earful from Israel. Foreign Ministry officials reiterated to me that the Israelis will not tolerate anybody doing business with an unreformed Hamas. They predict the PA sooner or later will meet conditions, but almost nobody agrees with that. That ends the Mideast peace process for the foreseeable future.

"It's like a bad marriage," Ambassador Yoram Ben-Zeev, a veteran career diplomat who heads the Foreign Affairs Ministry's North American Division, told me. "It needs a divorce." Two other well-placed Israelis used the same word -- divorce -- in describing the new Israeli-Palestinian arrangement.

When I told Abu Mazen (as Abbas is commonly called) about the desire for divorce,he and his staff members laughed. "Divorce with the Israelis?" he asked. "I never even knew we had a marriage. We don't want a marriage but to have a normal life." Some Israelis I talked to also thought the divorce metaphor was inappropriate. Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz, three days from Army retirement, said of using the word divorce: "It's stupid. We can't get divorced because there are so many children and we really can't get away from each other."

A unilateral two-state solution resulting in a fragmented, economically unviable Palestinian state concerns thoughtful people on both sides. Although terrorist violence has been at a minimum since the Hamas election victory, the prospect for renewed violence worries Abu Mazen in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Several Israelis told me they never had seen such hostility on both sides in the Holy Land.

Asked who was going to bail out the Palestinian Authority, Abbas answered quickly: "Nobody but the Americans." He also would like to see President Bush press Israel to return to the peace process and abandon unilateralism. But nobody here believes that is going to happen, which accounts for a pervasive sadness in the holy city of Jerusalem as the three great monotheistic religions celebrate sacred festivals.

Robert Novak is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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