Steps to strengthen Abu Mazen
Israel cannot make do with assuming the role of an outside observer. It must, to the best of its ability, contribute to the process that Abu Mazen is having difficulty in carrying out, even if such assistance will often entail security risks.
The rampage through the streets of Ramallah last week by armed Palestinians belonging to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the extensive damage that this rampage caused, forced Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to respond. In general, Abu Mazen has refrained from aggressive measures to impose law and order. Only twice thus far has he taken forceful action. The first was when Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees fired dozens of mortar shells and Qassam rockets at the Gush Katif settlements. That prompted the Palestinian leader to go to the Gaza Strip and fire some security service officers. And after last Wednesday's rampage by the armed men, some of whom had previously hidden out in the Muqata, Abbas similarly responded by ousting the head of the security forces in the West Bank, General Haj Ismail, and other officers.
The latter incident, which was directed against the Palestinian population rather than Israel, was a clear challenge to Abu Mazen's position and his rule. It also proved how right he was to call for "one law and one weapon" in the PA. It is clear that in the long run, Abu Mazen cannot accept the existence of multiple armed organizations in the PA. But so far, he has not succeeding in reforming the security services, as both the road map and the United States require him to do. Implementation of the Palestinian-Israeli "agreement on wanted men" would not only advance his dialogue with Israel, but might also make it easier for him to implement this reform.
Israel's interest is for Abu Mazen to succeed in his efforts to expand the current security lull and spur the resumption of negotiations on a comprehensive treaty. This interest obligates Israel to do more to help him and other moderates in the Palestinian leadership. Israel cannot make do with assuming the role of an outside observer. It must, to the best of its ability, contribute to the process that Abu Mazen is having difficulty in carrying out, even if such assistance will often entail security risks. For instance, the plan to withdraw from the city of Qalqilyah, which is currently on hold, would expand freedom of movement for Palestinians living in Tul Karm, Qalqilyah and the surrounding villages, and create a feeling of greater well-being. Israel must also act more energetically to remove additional checkpoints, leaving in place only those most essential to the Israel Defense Forces.
And before the disengagement plan is implemented, Israel must upgrade the pullout from the northern West Bank to make it equivalent to the pullout from the Gaza Strip. The current plan is to evacuate four settlements in the northern West Bank, but to allow the IDF to continue operating in the area just as it does now. This cannot be considered a disengagement. In this situation, the Palestinians will feel that the occupation in the northern West Bank is continuing as usual.
All of the above steps relate to the near term, and their goal is to help Abu Mazen improve his standing among the Palestinian public. But over the longer term, they are insufficient. Israel must start preparing now for the next stages of its relationship with the Palestinians. One important step would be to start genuinely implementing the road map. In order for the diplomatic process to progress and develop, Israel must start dealing now with the steps that will follow the disengagement. Israel will be expected to take such steps, so it ought to prepare itself in advance for them.