Militant showdown looms for Abbas

Palestinian Authority cuts ties to militants after bombing kills 20 Israelis.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The suicide bomb in Jerusalem that killed 20 Israelis and wounded more than 100 Tuesday night has also pushed US plans for peace between Israelis and Palestinians to a critical point.

While Israel's reaction will shape events in the next few weeks, the future success of the road map will depend on the way Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas deals with militant groups, analysts say.

They add that Mr. Abbas's course of action is likely to determine his own future as well. The bombing could change the way the peace plan is executed. The attack also highlights the failure of all three parties - Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans - to fully implement the road map. The solution, analysts say, is strong and decisive US action if the Bush administra tion's one positive Middle East accomplishment to date is to survive.

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"We are a step closer toward the [road map's] complete dissolution," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "The road map's not being implemented. Both sides decided they would go ahead with wholesale violations and ignore the fact that they were doing so. The US administration is in the key role here and has to act."

Back to square one

Israeli media described the bombing as a "hudna-breaker," using the Arabic word for the porous cease-fire that has been in effect since June 29 and is crucial to the road map's progress.

The severity, timing, and target made the attack especially horrifying for Israelis. Jerusalem's No. 2 bus travels from the Western Wall, Judaism's most holy site, through an Orthodox neighborhood that borders Arab east Jerusalem. It was laden with worshipers, almost half of them children enjoying a late night at the end of their summer vacations.

The bombing claimed by Hamas has dragged Israelis and Palestinians back to their pre-road map positions just as progress seemed imminent. Israel has cut off all talks with the Palestinian leadership, clamped a closure on the Palestinian territories, and frozen plans to return four cities to Palestinian control.

The bombing has also created a crucial challenge for Abbas, seriously undermining his cease-fire strategy, particularly as he was meeting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza when Tuesday's bomb exploded.

"They're spitting in his face," says Mr. Alpher. "If he still says it's raining, it's over for him. He's got to demonstrate he can do something - the question is what?"

Wednesday, Abbas responded by cutting all ties to militant groups and ordering the arrests of those responsible. Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security minister Mohammed Dahlan, says Abbas "blames [the militants] for damaging interests of Palestinian people," and emphasizes that the prime minister is serious.

"When I say the security forces will take measures against the perpetrators of this attack, I certainly don't mean they'll be drinking a cup of coffee with them," says Mr. Zananiri.

Israel has long demanded tough action. Under the peace plan's first stage, Palestinians are required to confront, disarm, and arrest groups planning attacks. Abbas argued, however, that after three years of conflict with Israel his security forces were too decimated to do so.

With no natural constituency of his own, the PA prime minister was reluctant to start an internal conflict with the widely popular militants. Instead, he promoted the hudna.

Flawed 'cease-fire'

But the cease-fire was imperfect from the start. Israel reserved the right to kill or arrest militants about to launch an attack and the militants declared they would respond. Since the cease-fire's debut on June 29, there have been four Palestinian suicide bombs that have killed 23 Israelis, while Israel has killed at least 15 militants.

"What we've seen is a gradual renewal of hostilities while everyone pledges allegiance to the road map," says Alpher.

With this bombing, Israel is likely to insist that Palestinians crack down on the militants in strict compliance with the road map. And Israeli officials may once again raise their demand that road-map progress be sequential instead parallel, that Palestinians fulfill their requirements before Israel has to act.

"There won't be any more Israeli concessions or even discussions about redeployments unless the Palestinian Authority does what Israel consistently and the US inconsistently have been asking them to do," says Mark Heller, a senior Jaffee researcher.

Palestinian analysts say that a crackdown on militants is still not viable and point to various Israeli failures to abide by the road map. Israel is required to build trust and ease conditions for Palestinians during the road map's first stage, yet it has continued settlement expansion, home demolitions, and restrictions on Palestinian movement around the West Bank.

Palestinians also charge that Israel's refusal to hand over security responsibility to Abbas contributed to Tuesday's tragedy. "Abbas's cease-fire strategy could have worked if it was given a chance," says Palestinian legislator Ghassan Khatib. "Israel was refusing to transfer security responsibilities to Palestinians, so they can't blame Palestinians for not doing what they weren't given the chance to do," Mr. Khatib says.

While Israel and the Palestinians have traded barbs about road map violations, the US has expressed understanding for Abbas's argument that he can't confront militants now. And while the US has pressured Israel, they have done so largely about issues indirectly related to the road map, such as Palestinian prisoner releases and the security barrier.

"If there was a more intense US presence, maybe they could have reduced some of the tensions arising out of the cease-fire," says Alpher, "but now it's even worse."

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