JERUSALEM, March 5 (JTA) ï¿½ As the Israeli army mounted a major operation in the Gaza Strip this week, questions were being asked about the ability of Israelï¿½s new, right-wing government to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. Israeli officials claim the Gaza operation actually was intended to serve a new, serious drive for a cease-fire being discussed by Israeli and Palestinian officials. Once a cease-fire is achieved, they say, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to move quickly to strike a longer-term deal with the Palestinians.
But the chances of achieving a cease-fire any time soon may be reduced following after a suicide bus bombing Wednesday in Haifa.
At least 15 people were killed and more than 30 others wounded in the attack.
ï¿½Once again, the bestial hand of Palestinian terrorism has struck at the heart of Israel,ï¿½ a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Hamas issued a statement Wednesday in the Gaza Strip praising the bombing, but stopped short of claiming responsibility.
The attack came amid Israeli efforts to clamp down on Hamas operations in Gaza.
Israeli forces backed by tanks moved into Gazaï¿½s al-Bureij refugee camp on Monday after rockets were fired at the town of Sderot on the Israeli side of the border. The target was Hamas, which Israel holds responsible for the rocket attacks.
Israel argues that it canï¿½t allow Hamas to hold the people of Sderot hostage ï¿½ and that, for any cease-fire to hold, the Palestinian Authority must keep Hamas and other radical organizations under control.
But Israeli faces a dilemma: Since the intifada began 29 months ago, Israelï¿½s battle against terror has severely weakened the Palestinian Authority, with which it might one day be able to strike a peace deal.
At the same time, the fighting has left Hamas, which is not interested in any compromise with Israel, virtually intact ï¿½ to the extent that Hamas now constitutes a real threat to the hegemony of P.A. President Yasser Arafatï¿½s Fatah movement in Gaza.
Israelï¿½s recent actions against Hamas, therefore, have a double goal: to protect Sderot by sending a deterrent message and to weaken Hamasï¿½s organizational structure and military capabilities.
Most of the Israel Defense Force operations in Gaza over the past month have been directed at Hamas terrorists. This weekï¿½s action for the first time targeted a Hamas ï¿½politicalï¿½ leader, Mohammed Taha, one of the organizationï¿½s co-founders, who was apprehended in the al-Bureij camp and taken into custody.
The message was clear: Israel now sees itself free to attack Hamas political leaders, including perhaps the organizationï¿½s spiritual leader and co-founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Israel has been urging the Palestinian Authority to confront Hamas and force it to play by the P.A.ï¿½s rules.
Israeli officials often cite the example of the chaotic early days of Israeli statehood when, to assert the authority of the central government, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the sinking of the Altalena, a Jewish ship that was bringing arms to underground Jewish militias.
In recent weeks, the Palestinian Authority instituted patrols along Gazaï¿½s northern border, intercepting Hamas rocket crews and stopping them from firing. But beyond that, Israeli officials say, there is no sign that the Palestinian Authority is willing to take on Hamas.
By hitting the organizationï¿½s political and military wings, Israel hopes to weaken Hamas enough to induce the Palestinian Authority to assert its authority at some point.
Yet there is something of a vicious circle in all this: The Israeli strikes have not been as surgical as the IDF would have liked, and a few hours after Mondayï¿½s IDF incursion killed eight people, including two civilians, Hamas again fired rockets at Sderot. Given the scope of the Israeli attack, this time the Palestinian Authority was unwilling to stop Hamas.
Despite Israelï¿½s ongoing policy of proactive defense against Hamas and other terrorist groups, Israeli and Palestinian officials are working intensively on a phased cease-fire agreement that would lead eventually to a full Israeli pullout from Palestinian areas and to free Palestinian elections.
The idea is that the Palestinians first take effective security control in Gaza, which would mean keeping Hamas in check. If that takes hold, the cease-fire could spread to West Bank cities, starting with Nablus and Bethlehem and going on to Ramallah and Hebron, then to Jenin, Tulkarm and Kalkilya.
The plan initially was put forward in January by an Israeli team led by Sharonï¿½s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass. In late February, P.A. Interior Minister Hani Hassan came back with a detailed draft of his own.
That draft now is the basis of the intensive negotiations.
Sharon aides say that if a lasting cease-fire is achieved, the prime minister will be ready to withdraw Israeli troops to pre-intifada lines. That would enable elections in the Palestinian territories, as envisaged in the international ï¿½road mapï¿½ for an Israeli-Palestinian peace being finalized by the diplomatic ï¿½Quartetï¿½ of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Sharon aides dismiss assessments in the Israeli press that the right-wing government will not be able to move on the Palestinian track. Immediately after his re-election, the aides note, Sharon held meetings with top Palestinian leaders ï¿½ including the speaker of the Parliament, Ahmed Karia, and Finance Minister Salam Fayed ï¿½ and say both sides are convinced they can work together.
Moreover, the aides maintain, Sharon has total control of all decision-making forums in his government: The parties to the right of Sharonï¿½s Likud, such as the National Religious Party and the National Union, have a total of only four Cabinet ministers in a government of 22.
In the 120-member Knesset, the aides say, Sharon can count on the support of 55 members of the coalition, as well as most of the Labor-led opposition, for any peace moves he makes.
Labor legislators remain unconvinced, however. Sharon could have formed a coalition with them, they say, but instead chose the far right ï¿½ and that shows his true intentions, they claim.
In talks with Labor, the legislators say, Sharon spoke about being ready to evacuate settlements in the context of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, but refused to put it in writing.
They also point out that both the National Religious Party and the National Union sent letters to Sharon objecting to the establishment of a Palestinian state, which is central to President Bushï¿½s vision of the two-state solution toward which the road map is supposed to lead, and which Sharon says he supports.
Yet Sharon says that at age 75, after spending most of his life as a soldier, his greatest ambition is to lead Israel to peace. His aides talk about his becoming an ï¿½Israeli de Gaulle.ï¿½
Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna says he, too, hoped Sharon would become a peacemaker, but he lost hope after their coalition talks. Whether or not the negotiators soon achieve a cease-fire could be a first indication of where Sharonï¿½s second administration is headed.
(Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)