You have to wonder what thoughts passed through the minds of Bethlehem's Christians as Palestinian Authority Chairman and Fatah commander Mahmoud Abbas appeared at the Church of the Nativity for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
On April 2, 2002, as IDF forces swept into Bethlehem to root out the terrorists who had taken control of the city, between 150 and 180 Fatah terrorists under Yasser Arafat's command shot their way into the Church of the Nativity. For the next 39 days they held the sacred site and some 150 clergymen hostage.
Three weeks into the siege, three Armenian monks escaped from the church through a side entrance and revealed what was happening inside. Friar Narkiss Koraskian told reporters: "They stole everything. They stole our prayer books and four crosses. They didn't leave anything."
When the siege ended, the released hostages told of frequent beatings of clergymen. The terrorists, they told The Washington Times, "ate like greedy monsters," gorging themselves on food and slurping down beer, wine and Johnny Walker scotch they stole from the rectory as their hostages went hungry.
CATHOLIC priests said that the terrorists used their bibles as toilet paper. Franciscan priest Nicholas Marques from Mexico reported: "Palestinians took candelabra, icons and anything that looked like gold."
Thirteen of the ring-leaders of the siege were deported to Cyprus and then dispersed to European countries. Twenty-six were sent to Gaza.
Bethlehem's Christians could not hide their relief at the expulsions. They spoke of a "reign of terror," of rape, murder and extortion that the men had waged against them over the previous two years. Helen, a Christian woman, told The Washington Times, "Finally the Christians can breathe freely. We are so delighted that these criminals who have intimidated us for such a long time are going away."
On Saturday night, as part of his massive effort to "strengthen" Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to convene a joint committee to discuss the return of these terrorists to the city.
Speaking of his good friend Mahmoud on Sunday afternoon to a Kadima audience in Ashkelon, Olmert allowed that "Abu Mazen [Abbas] is an adversary." But, he explained, he is an enemy Olmert can do business with.
IT IS TRUE that business sometimes can be done with enemies. But what business can Olmert do with Abbas? And how does any of this business advance Israel's national interests?
At the cabinet meeting Sunday, Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin embraced Olmert's decision to "strengthen" Abbas, by, among other things, giving him $100 million and agreeing to release terrorists from Israeli prisons even without receiving so much as a sign of life from IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by Abbas's underlings and their Hamas pals in Gaza for the past six months.
Diskin warned the ministers that if elections were held today in the PA, Hamas would win hands down. Not only would they retain their control over the PA government, they would no doubt rout Abbas himself and take over his presidency.
In light of the Palestinians' apparent satisfaction with their lot at being governed by genocidal jihadists from Hamas as opposed to corrupt genocidal jihadists from Fatah like the ones who took over the Church of the Nativity, the government believes that it needs to make the PA irrelevant – a mere school district – as one government official put it. In the meantime, the real power will be placed in the hands of the Fatah-controlled PLO.
There are of course, two problems with this. First, that "mere school district" will be armed to the teeth and controlled by an Iranian (and Saudi) trained, funded and armed regime that is overwhelmingly popular among its "students." This little backwater will continue to serve as a nexus for global jihad that is little different from Somalia.
Hamas has made clear that it will fight to the last man to protect its regime. Yet in the interest of "strengthening Abbas," Israel is doing nothing to weaken Hamas either militarily or politically.
THE SECOND problem with the "school district" strategy is that the edifice of power the Olmert government seeks to replace the PA with has no interest in making peace with Israel. To the contrary, far from seeking to transform the PA into a liberal, pacific democracy committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel (or for that matter, just freeing Shalit from captivity), Abbas seeks to strengthen the terrorist character of Palestinian society.
Abbas's demands of Olmert make this fact perfectly clear.
If Abbas were interested in peace he would not be demanding that Israel release terrorists from prison; stop arresting wanted terrorists; make it easier for terrorists to operate in Judea and Samaria by suspending IDF counterterror operations and taking down roadblocks; bring more terrorists into the areas from Jordan; arm terrorists through Egypt; and give him money to pay the salaries of terrorists.
If Abbas wanted peace he would be asking the IDF to escalate its fight against the terrorists. He would prefer that they rot in jail and not be released to enjoy the freedom to kill again.
In other words, if Abbas were interested in peace he would be doing precisely the opposite of what he is doing.
THERE ARE three reasons why Olmert and his government are acting as they are. First, they are doubtless bowing to pressure from the Bush administration. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated several times over the past week alone that the US has decided that its interest is advanced by Israel giving things to Abbas. But is US pressure a reasonable justification for Olmert's treatment of Abbas?
Olmert justifies his refusal to negotiate with Syrian dictator and Iranian toadie Bashar Assad by noting that the Bush administration strenuously objects to holding such talks. Yet this is a flimsy excuse for not negotiating with Syria. Even if the US were pressuring Israel to negotiate with Syria it would make no sense to engage Assad because Israel has absolutely nothing to gain from doing so.
As is the case with Abbas, by holding talks with Syria Israel would be conferring unwarranted legitimacy on Assad while receiving nothing of value in return. If Syria agreed to handover of IDF hostages Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and end Syrian sponsorship of Palestinian terror groups and Hizbullah in return for negotiations with Israel, it might make sense to confer such legitimacy on Assad even if the US objected. But Assad will do no such thing, and so there is nothing to be gained from talking to him.
So too, were Abbas to agree to fork over Shalit and end Fatah terrorism and indeed cooperate with the IDF in fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, there would be something to be gained by meeting with him – regardless of the US's position.
Although US pressure is real, it would be relatively easy to brush off simply by publicly pointing out the obvious. Aside from Washington's carping, the second reason that Olmert has decided to "strengthen" Abbas stems from the fact that his government has no strategic vision whatsoever. Cast adrift, Olmert is moved by the prevailing winds.
FOR THE PAST two weeks or so, since Assad began chirping about his wish to negotiate, the leftist-controlled Israeli media has been excoriating Olmert for bowing to Washington by refusing to meet with Assad. The weekend papers were full of condemnations by the chief diplomatic commentators in the major papers demanding that Olmert give the Golan Heights to Assad regardless of what the fuddy duddies in Washington think.
And so, Saturday night's kissy-kissy meeting with Abbas was aimed, among other things, a
t shutting them up. And it worked quite nicely. Both Ma'ariv and Yediot Ahronot merrily proclaimed in their Sunday editions that Abbas was a stand-in for Assad – but he'd do for now.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore the contribution the apparent stupidity of Israel's leaders made to Olmert's decision to embrace Abbas.
Sunday morning, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni exposed this idiocy when she asked Diskin whether he thought that Hamas was strong enough to stop the rocket attacks on Sderot and the Western Negev. In response, Diskin gently pointed out that Hamas is a terror group that is dedicated to destroying Israel, and so while it could stop the rockets, it has no interest in doing so.
GEE, HOW COME she didn't think of that?
But then Diskin inanely opined that if Israel responds to the rocket attacks on Sderot's kindergartens, elementary schools and apartment blocks, Hamas will get really mad at us for breaching the cease-fire that only the IDF upholds and will continue to attack us.
In light of his schoolhouse analysis, Diskin concluded that there's nothing we can do except pretend that the terrorists will change their minds about attacking us after we reward them for doing so by giving them money to pay themselves, bullets and rifles to shoot us with, send their terrorist buddies home from prison to join them in attacking us, and maintain the imaginary ceasefire to enable them to shoot at us with impunity.
In the meantime, while Olmert is planning to spring terrorists from prison next week in honor of the Islamic holiday, Gaza's Christians were too terrified to go to their Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. So the mass was cancelled. And in Bethlehem, as the dwindling Christian population reeled with the news that their tormentors may soon return to rape, murder and extort them again, Manger Square stood near-empty on Christmas.
But at least the peace process is getting back on track.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.