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New Terror Campaign Puts Abbas — and Sharon — in a Tough Spot

May 21, 2003
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Tough luck for Mahmoud Abbas. Just as a wave of Islamic terror ignited the Middle East from Casablanca to Afula to Riyadh, and as Israel launched a legal offensive against its own Islamic Movement, the new Palestinian Authority prime minister found himself hosted by his Israeli counterpart to find out what he was going to do about Palestinian violence against Israel.

But with even his own boss, P.A. President Yasser Arafat, putting spikes in Abbas’ wheels, how much could be expected?

That was among the key questions confronting Israeli policy makers this week as the country reeled from five terror attacks in barely 48 hours: Is Abbas strong enough to fight the rejectionists? Does he really want to? And what can be done as long as Arafat is still the Palestinian Authority’s main power broker, working to embarrass Abbas and prevent him from succeeding?

As a starter, Israel is demanding that Abbas disarm terrorist organizations, as the Palestinian Authority has pledged repeatedly to do over the past decade.

Fearful of a civil war, however, Abbas prefers to renew negotiations with Hamas to reach a one-year cease-fire, during which he would rebuild the P.A.’s security apparatus.

However, with the continued closure on the territories and intensive Israeli counter-terror operations on the one hand, and the wave of terrorism on the other, the Palestinian Authority and the terrorist groups are still divided even on the basic terms of negotiations.

Alas, their differences seem irrelevant for the time being. As far as the terrorists are concerned, they are ready neither for disarmament nor cease-fire. Their attitude seems to be, to use a favorite phrase of Arafat’s, “Let Abbas drink the waters of the sea in Gaza.”

Following the terrorist attack in Afula on Monday, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, promised to increase attacks so that the Israelis “will pay a heavy price, God willing.”

Abbas this week found himself besieged on three fronts: by Sharon, the terrorist groups and Arafat.

Israeli policy makers agree that Arafat appears determined to make Abbas fail. In addition to the control he has maintained over most of the P.A.’s security organizations, Arafat recently appointed one of his proteges as head of the powerful Preventive Security force, without seeking the approval either of Abbas or Mohammed Dahlan, the P.A. minister ostensibly in charge of security.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Monday that the Palestinian Authority now had two leaderships — that of Arafat and that of Abbas — with conflicting interests.

“The weights that do not allow the peace process to take off are, first of all, Arafat, who makes every possible effort to make the process fail, and the terrorist organizations, which receive outside help,” Mofaz said at Tel Aviv University.

Israel’s immediate reaction to the wave of terror was to close down the West Bank and Gaza Strip once again. The closure had been temporarily lifted last week in honor of visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell, but it was renewed in an attempt to give Israeli citizens a sense of security following five attacks within 48 hours.

But the closure conflicts with Israel’s declared interest in improving Abbas’ stature in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

After months of relative quiet, and after hopes that the U.S.-led war against Iraq would lead to a revival of the peace process, Israelis once again sought in vain for insight into when the bloodshed would end.

“We have good reason to believe that Arafat stands behind the attacks, whether actively or passively,” Lapid said.

For his part, Arafat told the media he opposed all violence against civilians and that the purported evidence of his involvement in orchestrating the terror was Israeli propaganda.

“Although we are under complete siege and under occupation,” he said, the P.A. security services had managed to prevent many “activities,” a euphemism for terror attacks, in the past 10 days, Arafat claimed.

The diplomatic “Quartet” that developed the road map “and senior security officers in Israel are well aware of it, but it is unknown to the Israeli public,” Arafat said.

Some Israeli officials again are recommending that Arafat be deported. At Sunday’s Cabinet session, Sharon and Mofaz agreed that deporting Arafat now would not serve any purpose, would cause considerable damage to Abbas’ political standing and would even allow Arafat to cause greater damage to Israel abroad.

Yet that just highlighted a bitter truth: After 31 months of the intifada, even after Israel regained military control of the West Bank, Palestinian terrorism is alive and kicking, and Israel has failed to come up with an answer.

Even after suffering severe casualties and with thousands of its members in Israeli jails, Hamas still is calling the shots.

Israel must decide if it wants to gamble on Abbas, and even more so on Dahlan, who says he is determined to weaken the terror organizations.

Judging from this week’s attacks, Dahlan’s potential for success is limited. On the contrary, the terrorist groups — including the Al Aksa Martyr’s Brigade, a branch of Abbas’ own Fatah Party that claimed responsibility for the Afula bombing — sent a clear message that they will not allow the new Palestinian premier to change the name of the game.

Despite all the hope when the road map was presented three weeks ago, prospects for peace depend on what happens locally on the ground, at least as much as on outside forces.

When they met last Saturday night, Sharon told Abbas that he did not have a majority for the road map in the Cabinet, mentioning his hawkish transportation minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as a major obstacle — to which Abbas responded that he had a thousand Liebermans of his own.

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