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In West Bank, Israel Puts P.A. to Crucial — and Final? — Test

Six weeks after Palestinian terror organizations declared a temporary cease-fire, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is moving into a critical phase.

Over the next few weeks, Israeli officials predict that the cease-fire either will stabilize or collapse. The planned hand over of more West Bank cities to Palestinian control, they believe, will be a crucial — and perhaps final — test for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ government.

It was not immediately clear what long-term effect Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem would have on the transfers. At least 15 people were reported killed and dozens were wounded in the attack, which was claimed by Islamic Jihad.

At least initially, Israel reacted by freezing the transfer of the cities — though the sides’ underlying interests remain unchanged.

In agreeing late last week to hand over Jericho, Kalkilya, Ramallah and Tulkarm, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes the Palestinian Authority will seize the opportunity to show that it can prevent terrorism from areas it controls, Sharon aides say.

But, they make clear, if the experiment fails Israel will retake the cities, a move that could topple the Palestinian Authority and spell the end of the “road map” peace plan.

The key struggle during the first phase of the road map has been over the terrorist weapon: Israel wants it defused; the Palestinians want to keep it in reserve.

In this context, the handover of the cities is part of a subtle diplomatic tango between the sides.

Israel hopes the move will lead to pressure on the Palestinians to crack down on terrorists. The Palestinians hope they will be able to prevent terrorist attacks without having to actually dismantle the terrorist groups or give up the option of renewing violence if negotiations fail.

Israel initially withheld transfer of the cities as a means of pressuring the Palestinians to crack down on terrorist groups.

But it didn’t work. Since they didn’t control the cities, the Palestinians argued, they couldn’t be expected to stop terrorism emanating from them.

Moreover, holding on to the cities opened Israel to accusations that it wasn’t giving enough to induce the Palestinians to fulfill their road map obligations.

Now, in a reversal of policy, Sharon hopes to put the burden of proof back on the Palestinians: They must prevent terror or risk being blamed for the failure of the “hudna,” an Arabic term for cease-fire that has connotations of rearming for future confrontation.

“Once they are given control, they will be formally responsible for what happens in the cities and be in a position to do something about it,” explained Gideon Ezra, a government minister close to Sharon. “There will be no more excuses.”

Using a strategy it perfected during the Oslo years, the Palestinian Authority’s tactic has been to claim weakness and then demand Israeli concessions, such as prisoner releases and the hand over of cities.

Ostensibly, such concessions will win the Palestinian Authority support on the Palestinian street, strengthening the government for the promised confrontation with terrorist groups.

In reality, however, once the Israeli concessions are obtained, the Palestinian Authority invariably maintains that they have been insufficient to merit a crackdown on terror, and urges the Americans to press Israel for more, Israeli officials complain.

Israel also has been engaged in a battle of wits with terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are trying to create a “balance of fear” by retaliating quickly for Israeli counter-terrorist operations in a one-for-one exchange that grants a veneer of legitimacy to the terror attacks.

For example, Islamic Jihad, which claimed the Jerusalem attack, had warned that it would retaliate for the killing of its local leader in Hebron last week.

Israeli analysts say the terror groups hope to create a situation similar to the standoff between Israel and Hezbollah along the northern border, where any Israeli attack on Hezbollah militiamen is met with the shelling of Israeli civilians.

In other words, the analysts say, the terror groups are exploiting the cease-fire to rearm, while deterring Israeli countermeasures by effectively holding Israeli civilians hostage.

“Hamas is not interested in blowing up the cease-fire just now,” a senior Israel Defense Forces source told the Ha’aretz newspaper. “But they want to create a mechanism that enables them to hit us whenever it’s convenient for them — to protest the killing or arrest of wanted men or the failure to release additional prisoners. And Islamic Jihad, of course, is starting to imitate them.”

The handover of the Palestinian cities is widely seen in Israel as a last-ditch attempt to save the cease-fire, which has been crumbling under Israeli counter-terrorism actions and Palestinian suicide bombings.

Still, Ezra, a former deputy director of the Shin Bet security service, told JTA — before Tuesday’s deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem — that the Israeli defense establishment is reasonably confident the Palestinian Authority will pass the test and help stabilize the situation.

“Take Bethlehem,” he says. “Since we handed it over in early July, there has not been a single terror attack from that city.”

Handing over more cities is a calculated risk, he said, but one worth taking.

Right-wingers in Sharon’s government have denounced the move as a relinquishment of the principle of reciprocity. They argue that the cities are being handed over to the Palestinians even though they have done nothing to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, as they are obligated to do under the road map.

The Palestinians will see the move “as a sign of weakness” that will encourage more terrorism, Education Minister Limor Livnat said.

Ezra counters that right-wing critics “do not want the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to succeed,” but prefer “to return to the old situation in which Israel has to deal with the terrorists itself.”

True, he said, Israel had spectacular successes fighting terrorism, but at the cost of soldiers’ lives.

“In the war against terror you do what’s best for you and what’s most effective,” he said. “Handing over the cities is not bowing to terror or giving up on the eradication of terror by the Palestinian Authority. But we reached the conclusion that it’s best for us not be in Jericho, Kalkilya, Tulkarm and Ramallah. I think we’d be better off not to be in Jenin, either.”

An Israeli pullout also should improve conditions for the Palestinian population, showing them that the peace process is preferable to terrorism, Ezra said.

“I was in Samaria recently,” he said, referring to the northern part of the West Bank, “and I saw how long Palestinians have to wait at our roadblocks. We are disrupting their lives. It would be much better if Palestinians manned the roadblocks or took other preventive measures against terror themselves.”

But Ezra agrees that if the Palestinian Authority fails this test, Israel will have no option but to move back into the main West Bank cities.

If that happens, Israeli officials say, it would be the end not only of the hudna, but possibly also of the Abbas government and the road map.

That’s why they believe the next few weeks will be so critical.

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