The words of praise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) heard from President George W. Bush are not enough to ease concern that the Hamas could emerge from the coming elections with a major achievement, perhaps even a victory. Postponing the elections from July 17 to sometime in the fall, after the disengagement, without any changes to the basic reality, will not be able to prevent it.
The significance of a Hamas victory in elections would be the loss of the last chance to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace and an end to the war. Even a significant minority, on the order of 40 percent of the Palestinian parliamentarians, would make it difficult for Abu Mazen and the Fatah to make progress on any such agreement. Palestinian legislation controlled by Hamas will shape an Islamic Palestinian society that will turn to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even if Abu Mazen continues to serve as president, he will not be able to prevent a renewal of the war and his fall will only be a matter of time. Another round of war will deepen the hatred, send any chance for an agreement far beyond the horizon, seriously harm the economy - and, worst of all, result in the loss of many lives.
Who will be responsible for the second fall of Abu Mazen?
All the regional powers would bear responsibility for it. The Israeli government lords over Abu Mazen with miserliness and the prime minister's speech last week before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) does not signal any change in that approach. The first mistake is ignoring the nadir with which he began his rule: Yasser Arafat left him a shockingly ineffective administration, a divided Fatah and four years of intifada, making him the leader of a poor, humiliated and desperate society.
Israel is demanding that the Palestinian leader disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He has no way to execute such an unpopular policy without first making a significant, tangible change in the lives of the residents of the territories. It must be remembered that the disengagement is perceived by Palestinians as an achievement of terror and not moderation. If Abu Mazen does not prove to his people that moderation pays and that through negotiations with Israel he can achieve more than through violence, he won't be able to do more than he has done so far.
With its vehement demand that he demonstrate some success on the ground, Israel is treating him as if he was a regional Israel Defense Forces commander, and forgets that he was not elected by Israel, but by the Palestinian nation, to achieve a viable state for them.
Israel's miserliness does have a security justification. Each abatement, like the lifting of checkpoints, issuance of permits to work in Israel, or freeing of prisoners, is risky. Nobody wants his generosity to enable the next terror attack. The trouble is that the desire to avoid the next attack creates a very strict policy that will not prevent the next war.
Western countries are also not going out of their way to help Abu Mazen in his hour of need. They could help improve the economic situation in the territories, but their actions in that field are lagging far behind their rhetoric. Congress recently approved the transfer of $200 million to the Palestinians, but $50 million of it will go to Israel to build border crossing terminals, $2 million to Hadassah University Hospital and $5 million for international accountants to monitor Palestinian Authority finances. The remaining $143 million have been attached with so many strings that it is doubtful that the money will be spent in the near future. The desire to make up for that insult prompted Bush to give Abu Mazen a "gift" of $50 million during the recent visit - the same amount that was discounted from the $200-million package and earmarked for Israel.
Arab states, especially those that earn billions of dollars a month from selling oil, excel at speeches against Israel, but are doing practically nothing to ease the poverty and unemployment in the territories.
Europe, the U.S. and the Arab countries don't have much to lose if the war is renewed and if Hamas rules Palestinian society. Strengthening the moderate Palestinian leadership and blocking Hamas is a clear-cut Israeli security interest. The vicious cycle in which a weak Palestinian government cannot take action against terror and Israel won't strengthen it until it does take steps to eradicate terror - but the Palestinian government is too weak to do so - must be broken.
Israel is the only country that can break that cycle. It can do so with some large, almost dramatic steps, and not with the evasiveness of shopkeepers. For example, the immediate release of a thousand prisoners, increasing to 20,000 the number of work permits for Israel and preparing 10,000 family reunifications for Gaza families that would be made available after the disengagement.
Most important of all is to change the approach to the Palestinian government. If Abu Mazen is a partner in the struggle against Hamas, then he must be treated as such. He shouldn't be preached at, he should be helped. That is the choice before us: an arrangement with Mahmoud Abbas or a renewed war with his successors, the Hamas.
The writer is a Labor Party MK and chairman of the Knesset Subcommittee for Security Perception.