Abbas Needs Backup

With Israel's pullout from the Gaza strip and four West Bank settlements just weeks away, the world is witnessing just how explosive this process could be.

This week, Israeli police are trying to hold back several thousand protesters determined to march on Gaza. The marchers oppose the removal of the Jewish settlements, slated to be emptied in mid-August.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, is attempting to rescue a suddenly tattered cease-fire with Israel. Last week, six Israelis were killed by a suicide bomb and one of many rocket attacks carried out by Palestinian militants. Israel responded with arrests, air strikes, and an assassination, killing eight militants.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have a monumental challenge on their hands. But Mr. Abbas is in the weaker position and needs more outside support, especially from the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has prudently added a visit to the region at the end of her Africa trip this week. She has the opportunity to push both parties back to the five-month truce, but most importantly, to give Abbas strong and clear support.

Not to underplay Mr. Sharon's tough spot - his own party opposes the withdrawal, and settlers are already clashing with Israeli troops. Rightist religious leaders have appealed to Israeli soldiers tasked with the pullout to also resist. And Israeli security is concerned about a possible assassination, as happened to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister killed in 1995 by a right-wing Jew opposed to the peace process.

Unlike Sharon, Abbas heads a fragile, poor, emerging democracy. After six months in power, he has yet to reform his security forces - critical for law and order. In congressional testimony last month, the US general sent to help get those forces in shape termed them "fiefdoms."

In recent days, Abbas has finally begun to assert himself. In a televised address, he said his government would not tolerate militants' attacks against Israel. And, for the first time, his security forces are using force against militants.

Still, he needs political backing, and that's where Ms. Rice comes in. Palestinians need to hear her repeat the bottom-line conditions of Palestinian statehood supported by her boss during an Abbas visit to the White House in May.

But they also need to know there's a "day after" plan for them post- pullout, and that final status talks are not far off. The administration's been noncommittal on these last points - but it could change that with a meaningful visit from Rice.

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