JERUSALEM (Jan. 18)
Ariel Sharon took Palestinians, Israelis and the international community by surprise when he broke off ties with Mahmoud Abbas a day before the new Palestinian Authority president was sworn in — and there are contradictory interpretations as to why he did it. Aides say the Israeli prime minister was delivering a clear message — that before there can be any peacemaking with the new P.A. government, as is being urged around the world, Palestinian terrorism must stop.
There are signs that Abbas may have been pricked into action by Sharon’s move, but critics on the Israeli left are skeptical: They suggest Sharon is preparing the ground to delegitimize Abbas as a potential peace partner.
Then, some say, Sharon will retract his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank — while other skeptics say he will disengage but use the negative image he has created of Abbas as a pretext for not going further.
The severing of ties came in the wake of a Palestinian attack last week on the Karni crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Israel in which six Israelis civilians were killed. Sharon’s anger at the nature of the attack — the complicity of Palestinian Authority security forces, who oversee the Palestinian side of the crossing, was strongly suspected — and the time it took Abbas to condemn it partly explains the sharpness of the prime minister’s response.
But he also wanted to make a point. While Abbas has been protesting that he needs time in office to find his feet, Sharon aides suggest the severing of ties was intended as a wake-up call for the Palestinians and the West.
Israel will not tolerate what they call an “Arafat-in-a-suit-syndrome,” they say, in which the urbane Abbas says the right things against terrorism, but like his predecessor does nothing to stop it.
In other words, the aides say, Sharon does not want the Palestinians to be lulled into thinking they can get away with anti-terrorist declarations and no action, or that the international community will be taken in again by smooth but empty talk.
The urgency of the matter was underscored by another bombing in Gaza on Tuesday that wounded six Israelis.
Israeli officials maintain that Abbas can root out terrorism if he wants to. Amos Gilead, a top Israeli defense adviser, notes that the Palestinians have about 35,000 men under arms in Gaza, where they face fewer than 1,000 Hamas militiamen.
According to Gilead, if Abbas were to unify the P.A. armed forces and threaten military action against Hamas, the radicals would back down and Abbas would be able to establish law and order without a civil war.
On Sunday, Sharon told the Cabinet that no one was stopping the Palestinians from deploying their forces in Gaza to stop rockets from being fired at the Negev town of Sderot and mortars from being fired at Israeli settlements in the strip.
Sources close to Sharon say that if Abbas presents a security plan outlining how he proposes to end the attacks, Israel will give him the breathing space he needs.
“But if he doesn’t, we won’t give him even a day’s grace,” an official told reporters.
The initial results of Sharon’s get-tough policy seem to have been positive: The Americans and Europeans also have been pressing Abbas to take action.
Whether as a result of the mounting pressure, or because Abbas genuinely believes terrorism does not serve Palestinian interests, the tone of Palestinian statements against the militiamen has grown decidedly more threatening. For the first time ever, the PLO Executive Committee put out a declaration calling for “an end to all military actions that undermine the national interest.”
P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei warned that “anyone who engaged in terror would be punished,” and Abbas told P.A. security commanders that he had received a mandate to end the armed intifada. He ordered them to take action to stop the Kassam rockets, and to deploy in the areas from which the rockets were being fired.
In a meeting Monday with Israeli left-wingers, Abbas outlined his plans: He said he would need about a month to reorganize the P.A. armed forces and bring the terrorists to heel. He would try to do so not by confronting them, but by getting them to sign onto a comprehensive cease-fire, he said.
Most significantly, he said the cease-fire he had in mind would apply not only to attacks inside Israel proper but also in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. On Tuesday, Abbas went to Gaza in an effort to persuade the radicals to accept the cease-fire call.
The big question is what will happen if the terrorist groups don’t accede to Abbas’ urgings. Will Abbas impose his will?
Israeli media quoted a senior P.A. security official Tuesday as saying that the Palestinian Authority indeed planned to disarm terrorist groups. But so far there is no sign of any movement of Palestinian forces to confront the terrorists on the ground, Israeli officials say.
Israel isn’t prepared to wait much longer. If Abbas fails to act within the next few days, the Israel Defense Forces are threatening to mount a wide-scale assault on the terrorists in Gaza. Some even talk of an attack similar to Operation Defensive Shield, the massive re-invasion of the West Bank in April 2002 that decimated the terrorist infrastructure there.
Though the Palestinians surely would protest loudly, a thorough Israeli military action to destroy Gaza’s terrorist infrastructure might be the best present Abbas could receive in his new post, sparing him the dirty work, some analysts said.
But such Israeli posturing, together with the severing of ties with Abbas, worries Israeli critics on the left. Several pundits suspect Sharon’s tough talk means he intends to backtrack on his commitment to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank next summer, while others suggest he may try to discredit Abbas to avoid having to negotiate with him.
Ironically, several pundits say, the more hawkish line has been made possible by the presence of the relatively dovish Labor Party in Sharon’s new government. Writing in the mass circulation daily Yediot Achronot, Nachum Barnea argued that whenever Labor joins a Likud-led government, the Likud seems to move to the right.
“Maybe it’s an optical illusion, maybe paranoia, but it’s difficult to avoid the impression that every time the” Labor politicians ” join the government, the tanks start rolling. It’s happened before, in unity Likud-led governments, including the last one led by Ariel Sharon, and it’s happening again now after Labor’s entry into the government,” Barnea wrote.
In the left-leaning newspaper Ha’aretz, Doron Rosenblum suggested that Labor’s presence in government gives Sharon the confidence “to do what he likes.”
Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Yahad party, maintains that Israel will not find a better partner than Abbas, and that Sharon, aided by Labor, may be about to miss an opportunity for historic compromise.
Israeli-Palestinian relations are at a critical juncture with many key questions still unanswered: Will Sharon’s tough line help stabilize the situation or lead to a new escalation? Will Abbas fight terrorism? And will Labor’s entry into the government prove a force for moderation or a cover for a more hawkish Israeli policy?