PA Playing With Fire

When Arafat Jaradat, an accused terrorist, died over the weekend in an Israeli prison, Israel did the responsible thing and invited a Palestinian pathologist to participate in the autopsy. It wanted to show that it had nothing to hide and to prevent the violence that would be sparked by rumors that he had been tortured in custody.

The Palestinian pathologist did the irresponsible thing and accused Israel of torturing Jaradat, despite the fact that there was no evidence to back such a claim. The reported bruises on his body could easily have been caused by attempts to resuscitate him and the results of tests taken to determine the exact cause of death had not yet come back from the lab.

The pathologist’s words, as expected, were like a match thrown on gasoline, igniting clashes throughout Yehudah and Shomron, which could have spiraled into something much more serious had Israeli security forces not exercised admirable restraint.

Instead of trying to put the fire out, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas fueled it by accusing Israel of provoking unrest in Yehudah and Shomron because it “wants chaos” and using the death of Jaradat to raise the banner of “freedom for our prisoners.”

The prisoners Abbas wants freed are, for the most part, terrorists with Jewish blood on their hands. He knows he’s playing with fire by calling for their release — a hot-button issue for the Palestinian street — and by demanding a U.N. inquiry into the death of Jaradat, but he’s convinced that this is the way to twist Israel’s arm on the peace process, a month before the arrival of President Barack Obama on his first visit to Yerushalayim.

While it’s understandable that Abbas would be frustrated — the Palestinian issue barely caused a ripple in the recent Israeli elections and no longer features prominently on the international agenda — he has only himself to blame. If an autopsy were performed on the peace process, the cause of death would clearly be Abbas’ inability to accept Israel as a Jewish state, create a viable Palestinian entity with a functioning economy, and unite the various terrorist factions in Yehudah, Shomron and Gaza to accept a two-state solution.

For years, he has been trying to cover up his failures by blaming the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, which the world perceives as right-wing. But his kvetching has worn thin.

For starters, he was offered a frighteningly sweet deal by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who offered Israel’s return to the 1967 lines, a Palestinian capital in part of Yerushalayim and international control of Har Habayis. “What happened?” Olmert wondered in a 2010 lecture. “It’s time the international community demands an answer from the Palestinians instead of arguing about a building here and a building there.”

Second, the Palestinian economy is a basket case, totally dependent on donations. The other Arab countries have always been better at promising financial assistance than delivering it, and Europe is having an economic crisis of its own.

A report issued recently by the World Bank says that the Palestinian Authority needs to lower costs and increase efficiency and concludes that its “economy is currently not strong enough to support a state.”

Third, despite repeated attempts, Abbas has failed to negotiate an agreement with Hamas and assert his leadership over the Gaza Strip. As long as Abbas can’t speak for the million and half Arabs in Gaza, any talk of a two-state solution is a non-starter.

Abbas is just one in a string of Palestinian leaders who has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In June 2009, Netanyahu made a diplomatic U-turn in his Bar-Ilan speech, calling for a two-state solution. He then agreed to an unprecedented 10-month building freeze in Yehudah, Shomron and parts of Yerushalayim. It was a perfect chance for Abbas to negotiate intensively and put Netanyahu on the spot in terms of how far he would go in reaching a compromise.

And now, instead of acknowledging his failures as a statesman and nation-builder, he is resorting to veiled threats of violence. He is telling the U.S. president: If you don’t force Netanyahu to give in to my demands, I won’t be able to control the violence and we’ll have a third intifada.

Such threats were once potent. But today, with Iran on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, the Arab Spring showing that democracy doesn’t bring stability, and the Syrian civil war, they don’t have the same efficacy.

If Abbas wants to impress the U.S. president, he needs to begin by acting responsibly. Instead of playing to the radicals in the Palestinian street by accusing Israel of torture and demanding the release of terrorists, he needs to accept Netanyahu’s standing invitation to hold direct talks.

It’s not simple. Abbas lost face when Hamas succeeded in winning the release of a thousand prisoners, including many terrorists, in exchange for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. But being a leader means forging a new path, not following the one set by the rabble-rousers on the street or his predecessors.

The situation is volatile. It’s very possible that Israel contributed to this by withholding tax money that the Palestinians used to pay their security forces. Either way, the responsibility now is for Abbas to ensure calm, for the IDF to continue to act with maximum restraint, and for talks to be renewed even before Obama arrives in the region.