In spite of Tuesday's terror attack and its tragic consequences, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remains a partner for peace. Over the next few days we will, of course, hear the same old slogans bandied about: "There is no Palestinian partner," or better yet, "Yasser Arafat could have made peace but didn't want to; Abbas may or might not want to conclude a peace with Israel, but he cannot."
But the attacks, for which Hamas took credit, occurred before the Palestinian Authority has been allowed to take control of the Hebron area. One must also admit that the West Bank has recently experienced one of its calmest spells since 1967.
Those pigeonholing Abbas have overlooked a number of facts. Over the past decade he has displayed the kind of political courage Israelis can only dream of their own leaders showing. As early as the first dark days of the second intifada, Abbas was the only Palestinian leader saying openly that the violence must stop. In early 2005, on the presidential campaign trail, Abbas denounced Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza, affirming that they are tantamount to political suicide and hurt the Palestinians' wider interest. In the end, he won the election.
Abbas' control may not extend to Gaza, but in the West Bank he has engineered a revolutionary transformation. Lacking Arafat's much-touted charisma, Abbas has quietly, obstinately changed the very face of the territory. Along with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, he has created a new way of life for the Palestinians. The armed men have disappeared, and West Bank cities for the first time know law and order. And yes, the number of terror attacks against Israelis has plummeted.
During Operation Cast Lead, as Arab countries erupted in anti-Israel protests, the calmest place in the Middle East - even more than Israel - was the West Bank. In public opinion polls, meanwhile, Abbas' popularity has consistently climbed (the sole exception being his tepid response to the Goldstone report ).
Abbas may not be as popular as Arafat, but the latter always saw public opinion as a foremost objective. Abbas' status within Fatah is better than ever, and opponents to his leadership have failed time and again to unseat him.
Top officers within the Shin Bet security service and Israel Defense Forces have voiced similar opinions about Abbas' leadership, even if in the wake of this week's attacks they haven't done so publicly for fear of a backlash from the Israeli right.
Members of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, however, go one step further, getting hung up on Hamas rule in Gaza - or a single terror attack during an otherwise quiet period - to explain the stagnation of the peace process or their prediction of the failure of diplomatic talks. Israel must not find itself held hostage by Hamas, waiting for the Islamist group to agree to relinquish its rule over Gaza or stop terror attacks, before agreeing to sign a peace deal.
In word and deed, Abbas has made clear he has both the will and the way to make peace, but he can't do it under the terms the Israeli right is demanding. He can show flexibility over borders, maybe even over the right of return. But not over Jerusalem, just as Arafat refused to do.
The Netanyahu government must understand the price of ending the conflict. You want peace? Give Abbas the Temple Mount. Without Islamic sovereignty over what Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif, we won't have peace even a decade from now.
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