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The Oys from Brazil (and Jerusalem) by Luis Lainer, APN Chair

It's hard to figure out what Arab and South American leaders (including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) were trying to accomplish by inserting unhelpful language about terrorism into the joint declaration that they issued from their recent summit in Brazil.

It's hard to figure out what Arab and South American leaders (including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) were trying to accomplish by inserting unhelpful language about terrorism into the joint declaration that they issued from their recent summit in Brazil. The text denounced terrorism but asserted the right of people "to resist foreign occupation in accordance with the principles of international legality and in compliance with international humanitarian law." The Associated Press reported that this ambiguously worded clause was a clear reference to Israeli and American condemnation of the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Setting aside the Lebanese situation, at a time when President Abbas is trying to wean Islamic militants off of violence and into mainstream politics, what purpose does it serve to have the Brazil declaration encourage these folks to keep their powder dry? Unless there is a consistent message against all attacks on civilians from responsible Arab leaders to the militants, chances for progress in the domestic political struggle taking place in the occupied territories will be diminished, as will Israeli confidence-already shaky-that a policy of gradually co-opting Hamas will work.

The question of how to deal with a terrorist group that aspires to a political role has taken on new urgency with the success of Hamas in Palestinian municipal elections and the prospect of Hamas doing well in the upcoming contest for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas is not prepared to disarm at this time, which raises legitimate concerns about Palestinian rule of law and ongoing security threats.

President Abbas has good intentions and has ordered a halt to all violence and terrorism, but his instructions have not always been carried out. Consequently, the Palestinian Authority has not consistently demonstrated its ability to provide safety from militants and criminals for Palestinians living in towns that have had their security forces decimated by Israel during the Intifada. Similarly, President Abbas has taken some significant steps towards cracking down on terrorists who strike Israeli targets, but this effort is still a work in progress.

Nuance and patience are not hallmarks of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approach to terrorism. He continues to insist that the only way to deal with terror is through force-despite the failure of nearly five years of military pounding to eliminate Hamas and other terrorist groups. If his approach had worked, there would be no need for Israel to complain about President Abbas not doing enough to tackle terrorism because it would no longer exist.

Yet nuance and patience are precisely the qualities that President Abbas needs from Israel in order to give his efforts enough time to succeed. His attempt to co-opt militants offers the possibility of not only bringing them into the legitimate political arena, but also of eventually moderating their views as they assume greater responsibility for governance. While this effort unfolds, he needs outside help to enhance Palestinian security capacities to provide him with the tools he needs to compel political parties to cede possession of their arms to government authorities. If some refuse to comply, he must be able to act forcefully to reinforce his control, and do so.

A combination of political co-option and muscle flexing may succeed where brute strength alone has failed. But this will not happen overnight, and President Abbas already faces a difficult challenge in convincing Israel to give him the time he needs to succeed. Statements like the Brazil declaration do nothing to help buy him time.

The flip side to the Brazil declaration, of course, is the string of statements coming out of Israel underscoring its intention to leave Gaza, but to tighten its grip on East Jerusalem and the West Bank through settlement expansion and completion of the security fence. This message may play well with right-wing audiences in Israel, but it sends a powerful signal to Palestinians that they should not hold out any hope for establishing a viable, contiguous state through the negotiating process. And if their national dreams cannot be fulfilled through diplomacy, what is the motivation for Hamas and others to lay down their guns?

The basic land-for-peace-and-security equation is still the foundation for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, leaders on both sides need to consider the impact of their statements beyond their own domestic audiences. They must provide reinforcement to each other: Palestinians have to let Israelis know that negotiations will yield the peace that they need and deserve, while Israelis must let Palestinians know that their future state will founded roughly along the Green Line. The Brazil declaration and bombastic Israeli statements about territory only postpone the day when both sides will be ready to make the compromises necessary to live in peace.


Luis Lainer is Chair of Americans for Peace Now