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Progress, wariness after summit

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, poses with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Feb. 8, during the Sharm el-Sheik summit. (GPO/BP Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, poses with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Feb. 8, during the Sharm el-Sheik summit. (GPO/BP Images)

JERUSALEM, Feb. 14 (JTA) � The dust is still settling after last week�s summit at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, but early signs on the ground are highly contradictory. Last week, just 48 hours after the summit, Palestinian terrorist groups fired more than 50 mortar shells at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip � yet now Hamas, the largest and most important of the terrorist groups, says it�s committed to the cease-fire announced at the summit.

Israel�s security service, Shin Bet, says the cease-fire won�t last, but the Israel Defense Forces say everything must be done to give Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a chance to impose law and order.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is doing all he can to help Abbas, but right-wing efforts to subvert Sharon�s policy are taking on a more menacing character.

And while Israeli officials say peacemaking will succeed only if the terrorist groups are disarmed � a key component of the internationally backed �road map� peace plan � Abbas makes clear that he has no intention of moving against the terrorists any time soon.

Not surprisingly, assessments differ as to whether this latest Israeli-Palestinian peace bid will succeed.

Sharon is accentuating the positive. He returned from the summit in high spirits, emphasizing two major achievements: All the key players, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan�s King Abdullah and Abbas, now recognize that terrorism must stop before peacemaking can begin. They also all accept Israel�s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank as the basis for a new dynamic leading to peace talks based on the road map.

In the not-so-distant past, the Arabs and many Europeans had argued that peacemaking was the way to stop terrorism. Now, a senior Sharon aide told JTA, it�s clear to everyone that terrorism must stop before peace can have a chance.

On the declarative level at least, the summit signaled a return to the situation that existed before the intifada began in September 2000. According to the understandings reached, the violence will end, Israeli troops will move out of Palestinian towns and cities, roadblocks will be lifted, Palestinian prisoners will be released and Palestinian workers will return to Israel.

But Israeli officials point to key differences from the pre-intifada status quo that give them hope for a better outcome this time around.

For one, both sides have been traumatized by the violence and realize the consequences of failing to achieve a political settlement. Moreover, influential regional players are playing a positive role, and an Israeli withdrawal plan and a step-by-step road map toward an agreement are in place.

But the biggest change of all, one official told JTA, �is that now, at last, there is a rational partner on the Palestinian side.�

The acid test, Israeli officials say, will be whether the new Palestinian leadership can stop the terror. Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner maintains that this will be possible only if Abbas confronts and disarms Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

�Otherwise, even if he gets them to agree to a cease-fire, it won�t last. In a few days or weeks from now they will start firing mortars or Kassam rockets again, we will react, and we�ll all be back to Square One, embroiled in a new intifada,� Pazner said. �The militias will either have to disarm voluntarily, or Abbas will have to take them on. There is no other way.�

The fragility of the cease-fire was highlighted when terrorist groups bombarded Jewish settlements in Gaza on Feb. 10. But on Sunday, after a meeting with Abbas, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar announced that Hamas not only accepted the cease-fire, but would consult with the Palestinian Authority before �retaliating against Israeli violations.�

Abbas showed his seriousness after the shelling by firing high-ranking P.A. security commanders for failing to enforce the cease-fire.

Israeli officials also are concerned about the presence of Iranian-backed Hezbollah cells in the Palestinian territories and fear they might act on orders from Tehran to undermine steps toward peace. They fear Abbas himself could be a target.

The IDF and Shin Bet differ in their assessments of how much Abbas can achieve. Shin Bet is convinced he will not act against the terrorists and that the current lull will last a month or two at most, and the terrorist groups will use that time to rearm and prepare for new attacks.

Israel therefore should be careful not to take steps that will make fighting terrorism harder in the future, Shin Bet says.

The army, on the other hand, argues that Abbas must be given every chance to impose law and order and that Israel must do all it can to help him, even if that means taking chances on security.

Sharon, who backs the IDF�s approach rather than Shin Bet�s, says the government will do all it can to help Abbas. Indeed, it seems Sharon is ready to break with precedent and release terrorists who have killed Israelis, a key Palestinian demand.

Two initial groups of 500 and 400 prisoners slated for release do not include any with �blood on their hands.� But the day after his return from Sharm al-Sheik last week, Sharon told journalists he had promised Abbas that if he ended terrorism, Israel would consider releasing prisoners who have attacked Israelis. Sharon also will allow terrorists expelled from the territories to return.

Like Abbas, Sharon faces strong domestic opposition. Hawks in his own Likud Party are stepping up their calls for a referendum on disengagement, and extremists on the far right have been heckling Cabinet ministers in public places and sending them threatening letters.

Sharon, who security officials fear could be a target, says he is determined to press ahead without a time-consuming referendum and is urging security forces to deal with extremists making physical threats.

Whether or not Palestinian terrorism ends and despite the threats from Jewish extremists, Sharon aides say the prime minister will go ahead with the disengagement plan. But what happens next will depend on the Palestinians.

If the Palestinians fail to fight terrorism, Israel will stop after the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank and �park� on the new lines �for as long as it takes,� a close Sharon aide told JTA. But, he said, if there is concerted Palestinian action against terrorism, the parties will be able to move relatively quickly toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

�Everything depends on how they control terror,� the aide said.

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