Yasser Arafat's demise in November excited great hopes among those who saw his malign personality as the main reason for Palestinian intransigence.
But those of us who saw the problem as larger than Arafat – as resulting, rather, from the deep radicalization of the Palestinian body politic – expected little change. Indeed, I wrote at the time of Mahmoud Abbas' election to head the Palestinian Authority that, "he is potentially a far more formidable enemy to Israel" than was Arafat.
How do things look half a year after Arafat's death? About as awful as anyone might have expected. Specifically, Mr. Abbas is unambiguously leading the Palestinians to war after the Israeli retreat from Gaza in August 2005. Consider some recent developments.
Hiring terrorists as soldiers: Rather than arrest terrorists, as required by the informal February 2005 cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Abbas has instituted a unique employment program for them, incorporating them into his security forces. The Associated Press explains the charming point system to determine who gets what rank: "A high school diploma … is worth eight points, while a year in an Israeli prison or on the run counts for two points each. Gunmen don't get credit for time served in Palestinian lockups, but they win extra points if they were wounded by Israeli army fire or had their homes demolished." The Israeli authorities have accepted that even convicted Palestinian killers carry weapons.
Arming terrorists: The Palestinian military intelligence agency facilitates terrorist groups smuggling SA-7 Strela shoulder-fired missiles into Gaza to use against Israeli aircraft.
Inciting the population: As Palestinian Media Watch, the Center for Special Studies, and Michael Widlanski have exhaustively detailed, the political speeches, press content, mosque sermons, school textbooks, and wall posters remain as rabidly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic as during the worst days of Arafat's rule. For example, Ahmad Qureia, the PA's so-called prime minister, has threatened "an explosion" over Israel's handling of Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Pretend arrests of terrorists: As under Arafat, the PA plays the charade of arresting terrorists with fanfare and then allowing them quietly to "escape" from prison. Two examples of these revolving-door arrests: Two perpetrators who assisted a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in February 2005 left jail in April; and the Palestinian police arrested their first Hamas terrorist on May 2 but promptly released him one day later.
As a result of these steps, Palestinian terrorism, especially coming out of Gaza, has dramatically increased since April. Things have reached such a low point that one analyst, Leslie Susser, finds that the February cease-fire "may be on the verge of collapse."
It is hard to argue with Caroline Glick's conclusion that the Sharon government and the Bush administration were both "horribly wrong" in betting on Mr. Abbas. And yet, neither of them concedes this error because, having stressed Mr. Abbas's good intentions, both now find themselves deeply invested in the success of his political career.
The planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August is likely to precipitate new rounds of violence. One could come in July, as the Israel Defense Forces engages in a massive sweep of Gaza to ensure that the forthcoming retreat takes place not under Palestinian fire.
More violence could follow in September, as the Palestinians, Gaza now under their belt, begin a new assault on Israel. That round presumably will feature the substantial rocket arsenal that Hamas has been amassing. Israel's chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, is on record predicting, "Immediately after the disengagement we can expect a burst of terrorism."
Thus has Ariel Sharon neatly arrayed all the elements for a massive train wreck.
Ironically, the one thing that might prevent this scenario from playing out would be a Hamas victory in the Palestinian council elections scheduled for mid-July. Israeli voices are increasingly calling for the Gaza withdrawal to be postponed or even annulled should Hamas do well, as seems likely. For example, Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, has said if Hamas wins the elections, it would be "unreasonable" to implement the disengagement plan and allow Hamas to create a "Hamas-stan" in Gaza.
So, there are many possibilities in the next four months. Their common element is that by September, the Arab-Israeli theater will be in yet worse shape than it is today.