WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Yasser Arafat's departure and Israel's planned disengagement from Gaza provide a unique window of opportunity for the emergence of a transformed and responsible Palestinian leadership, which will hopefully be capable of embarking on the "road map" responsibilities and re-engaging in dialogue with Israel.
While Israel, the Palestinians, the United Nations, the European Union and the Quartet are all hopeful, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization, stands poised to spoil this extraordinary opportunity for progress.
Through its strategy of training Palestinian terrorist groups to become increasingly lethal -- in effect exporting the "Hezbollah model" to the conflict -- Hezbollah is destabilizing the Palestinian street, while at the same time threatening to destroy any hope for the future.
The European Union has been slow to recognize this reality, and even slower to act on it. In this latest sign of European hesitancy, the EU has been unable to agree on a policy to clamp down on the Iranian-backed terrorist organization.
Many member states within the EU insist on distinguishing between Hezbollah as a political party with a broad program of social works, and Hezbollah as a terrorist organization responsible for numerous deadly attacks. This illegitimate and artificial distinction is undermining efforts to crack down on the organization.
Earlier this month, Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot called for the organization in its entirety to be placed on the EU's list of terrorist organizations in a bid to dry up its financing from Europe. The EU requires a unanimous vote to place any organization or individual on the terrorist list, and five EU states -- Belgium, France, Greece, Spain and Sweden oppose deeming Hezbollah a terrorist group. Only the United Kingdom officially recognizes Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and even then it recognizes just one wing of the organization, allowing what it deems the legitimate political wing, to operate freely.
Those states that oppose adding Hezbollah to the EU terrorist list argue that the organization provides needed social services, and freezing its assets would be counterproductive. France has posed particularly strong resistance to including Hezbollah on the EU terror list, saying it is a political party and declaring it a terror organization could destabilize Lebanon.
EU-Hezbollah political ties go to the highest levels of the political echelon. As recently as Sept. 10, the EU representative in Lebanon, Patrick Renaud, met with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in an EU Commission-sanctioned meeting. The two talked about the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, and relations between Lebanon and the European Union.
The distinction between the political and militant wings of Hezbollah, however, is dishonest. The Hezbollah leadership itself refuses to distinguish between a political and military wing of the organization. Muhammad Fannish, a member of the Political Bureau of Hezbollah, told al-Manar Television in January 2002 that "no differentiation is to be made between the military wing and the political wing of Hezbollah."
In a book recently published by the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, entitled "Hezbollah -- the Approach, the Experience, the Future," Qassem writes, "Hezbollah is a jihad organization whose aim, first and foremost, is jihad against the Zionist enemy, while the political, pure and sensible effort can serve as a prop and a means of support for jihad."
It is abundantly clear that the EU cannot succeed in preventing funds raised in Europe from financing Hezbollah terrorist attacks unless it bans the entire organization. The social and political wings fund and facilitate attacks and generate grassroots support for the group, in addition to helping draw recruits. While the EU recognized this reality when it added Hamas, another terrorist organization with a "grassroots political wing," to its list of terrorist organizations in 2003, it has been slow to recognize it in the case of Hezbollah.
The Netherlands held the rotating EU presidency until Dec. 17, and was trying to rally European opinion toward designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group. While the Netherlands has until now drawn a distinction between Hezbollah's civilian and armed wings, Bot is attempting to convince the European Parliament that both are dedicated to the same end, and that both should be included in the EU list of terrorist organizations. There is currently no unanimity on the subject within the EU, but both Israel and the United States are likely to continue pressuring the EU to add Hezbollah to the list.
Adding Hezbollah to the EU terror list would represent a coup for the global war on terror. In addition to the important political signal it would send -- letting the world know that Europe is serious not only about fighting terror, but also about laying the groundwork for progress on the Israeli-Arab front. Adding Hezbollah to the EU terror list would also serve a practical function. It would enable a freeze on European financing for the organization. Many states within the EU, however, remain reluctant to take steps to block the assets of Hezbollah, which continues to do business in the EU with no repercussions.
As long as European countries continue to treat Hezbollah as a legitimate political actor, funding for the terrorist organization will continue to flow through Europe, and the threat to stability in the Israeli-Palestinian arena will increase. Placing Hezbollah on the EU's blacklist and freezing its assets in Europe is the first step to ensuring a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
(Rebecca Allyn is a senior foreign policy research analyst with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC is a U.S.-based pro-Israel lobby group.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)