Whoever leads the Palestinians, the US has a duty to restrain Israel

08 September 2003

Hand-wringing or breast-beating over the resignation of Abu Mazen, the short-lived Palestinian Prime Minister, is pointless. His was never likely to be a successful appointment, although it was worth a try.

In the end, he was unable to escape the catch-22 of his elevation. He was chosen under pressure from the outside parties that drew up the peace plan known as the road-map: America, Russia, Europe and the UN. Above all, he was chosen because he was not Yasser Arafat, with whom neither the Americans nor the Israeli government was prepared to treat.

That fact alone was all that Mr Arafat needed to strengthen his credibility among most Palestinians, and all that was needed to persuade them that Abu Mazen was a US stooge. Some Americans have blamed the Europeans, who continued to deal with Mr Arafat, for undermining their attempts to exclude the ancient warhorse of the Palestinian cause. This ignorant view was contradicted by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, who recently appealed to Mr Arafat to "co-operate" with the road-map.

Only a great leader could have broken out of Abu Mazen's box, seizing an historic moment to challenge Palestinians' victimhood while winning their loyalty. He never looked like that leader, and now he has accepted he cannot be.

His resignation is not so much a setback for the peace process as an acceptance that this route petered out some weeks ago. Of course, the prospects of a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians are not good. The likelihood is that the Israelis will build their wall, that the suicide bombings and guerrilla war will continue, and that the sense of injustice scarring the Palestinians and the wider Arab world will deepen.

But that does not mean all is hopeless or that there are not constructive things outsiders can do. For the British, that mainly means using whatever influence we have on US policy.

The priority, surely, ought to be to restrain the Israeli government. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, seems determined to make a settlement more difficult. The US should have no truck with his foolish talk of exiling Mr Arafat. That will only make it easier for other possible Palestinian leaders to evade their responsibilities.

Nor should the US tolerate a policy of targeted assassination that seems to be targeted at precisely the wrong people. Last month the Israeli army killed the one Hamas leader who had advocated dialogue with Israel; this week it tried to kill the faction's foremost religious leader. Above all, the US must get serious with the Israeli government and insist that it reverse settlement-building in the occupied territories.

It will be protested that these requirements are one-sided, demanding action of Israel and nothing of the Palestinians. True. But the Israeli state is capable of delivering what is asked of it, while the Palestinian Authority is not - yet. Abu Mazen turned out to be powerless to prevent Hamas, while supposedly observing a ceasefire, from claiming responsibility for the suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem.

And, as Israel is only being asked to do what is right, it should do it anyway, regardless of whether the other side is also in the wrong. If the Israelis alone are able to begin the dance of confidence-building, they should.

Until a situation is created in which Palestinian leadership is possible, no leader will emerge who is capable of reconciling the Palestinian people to peaceful coexistence with Israel.