Can Abbas survive the crossfire?

A key player in peace road map, the Palestinian Authority prime minister fights for relevance amid Israeli-Hamas attacks.

During days that were supposed to be a prelude to a new era of Middle East peace, it appears that an all-out war is erupting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Caught in the middle and battling for his political survival, analysts say, is the moderate new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

Supporters of Mr. Abbas argue that recent Israeli airstrikes against Palestinian targets undermine his very credibility. But Israeli defenders say that Israel has no choice until Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) take steps to stop the attacks by militant groups like Hamas.

"Abbas ... has no legitimacy. Legitimacy derives from what he can bring to the people, and he has not brought them any change at all. There are just more [Israeli] checkpoints and more assassinations," says Qadura Fares, a Palestinian legislator. "If this continues, and [Abbas] is unable to deliver anything, I think he will resign," Mr. Fares says. "He is a man with self-respect."

Abbas's predicament is evoking little sympathy from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, if official accounts of Thursday's cabinet meeting offer any indication. Mr. Sharon termed him "a chick that has not grown its feathers yet" and said Abbas and his colleagues were "crybabies" for saying they did not yet have the powers to stop Palestinian attacks against Israeli targets.

While Israelis were still grappling with the shock of a Wednesday Jerusalem bus bombing by Hamas that killed 16 people and wounded 70 others, the army's Apache helicopters assaulted a Hamas target in Gaza Thursday for the fourth time in two days.

The strike killed six people in addition to a senior Hamas militant. A spokesman for the group said that the dead included Hamas fighter Yasser Taha, his wife, and their two small children.

On Tuesday, Israeli helicopters mounted a failed assassination attempt on Abdul Aziz Rantissi, one of the movement's prominent leaders, injuring him in the leg. The attack killed two people, wounded more than 30 others, and prompted Hamas to vow retaliation against Israeli civilians.

'We will not wait'

Sharon said the PA had told him it would need four months to get organized before it can take over security responsibilities. "We will not wait for a month, a week or even a day," he was quoted as telling the cabinet. "We will fight the terrorism ourselves."

Mr. Fares, the Palestinian legislator, says the demand that Abbas immediately confront militants is unrealistic not only because PA forces have been badly damaged during the two years of fighting, but more importantly because Abbas needs time to gain popularity and credibility. "The only thing that can give him the credibility is for him to be able to point towards hope and a better future," says Fares. "What the Israelis are doing to him is tying up his hands and legs and throwing him into the sea, while at the same time asking him not to get wet."

Hamas leaders are also showing little patience for Abbas. Osama Abu Hamdan, a Hamas spokesman in Lebanon, Thursday said that the militia of the Fatah faction, of which Abbas is a senior figure, must keep fighting the Israelis. "We are facing terrorism and all the forces must defend the Palestinian society. This fight is not just Hamas's fight but that of all the Palestinian people," he told the BBC.

For Palestinian hard-liners, Mr. Abbas has already gone too far - even without arresting Hamas leaders - by adopting American and Israeli terminology to describe Hamas actions as terrorism. "He is part of the problem, he is riding with the Israelis on this road map to the end," said Hassan Khreisheh, a Palestinian legislator.

"I think Abbas will last as prime minister for another three or four months," he added. "What he is doing is totally against the wishes of the people. And the people will force him to resign because he has brought no improvement to their lives."

For Israelis, meanwhile, even those who want to give him a chance, scenes of carnage such as those of Wednesday's bombing inevitably raise questions about whether the road map is viable, says Uzi Benziman, a Ha'aretz columnist.

A question of motives

But there are also questions about Sharon, and whether he is deliberately sabotaging Abbas in order to avoid the road map requirements of territorial concessions and a freeze on Jewish settlements.

Mr. Benziman says the answer to that is far from clear. "You could say that with so many warnings of terrorist attacks, one should not expect the army not to act. On the other hand, maybe Sharon believes he has a good excuse here for bringing about the failure of the road map without being blamed."

Haifa-based analyst Wadi Abu Nasser says Sharon has been planning all along to destroy the road map, and undermine Abbas. He stresses that the attack against Rantissi came a day before Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman arrived to renew talks with Hamas.

"Abbas has no popularity among Palestinians, because he is seen as a kind of tool in the hands of Israel and the US," says Mr. Nasser. "He became prime minister after Israeli and US pressure. And now his only hope is to convince Bush to help him get Israel to change its policy."

In an effort to repair the tattered road map, US Secretary of State Colin Powell is preparing to meet in Jordan with leaders of Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, diplomatic sources told the Associated Press Thursday. The tentative date for the meeting in Aqaba, Jordan is June 22.

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