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Competing visions of Mideast peace face Abbas, Sharon

Israeli leader suspends talks until Abbas cracks down on Palestinian militias.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2005



JERUSALEM

Just a week after moderate Mahmoud Abbas easily won an election to replace Yasser Arafat, much of the optimism that accompanied his victory has given way to a familiar sense of intractability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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While Israelis in the town of Sderot, near the Gaza border, protested Monday after a Hamas rocket attack on Saturday critically wounded a 15-year-old Israeli girl, Palestinians in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis mourned after an Israeli tank shell killed two civilians.

And in a reminder of the era of Mr. Arafat, leaders of the two sides now have no dialogue after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ruled out contact until Mr. Abbas cracks down on militant factions.

Beyond that major dispute, analysts say, are fundamentally different visions of the near future. Mr. Abbas's push for a return to the international peace blueprint known as the road map, which calls for a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, is at loggerheads with Sharon's focus on unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon remains intent on keeping as much of the West Bank as possible and is reluctant, at least for now, to move toward a resumption of negotiations according to the road map, the analysts say. The road map calls on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle "terrorist capability and infrastructure" and on Israel to freeze settlement construction.

Sharon's decision to suspend talks until Abbas moves against the militias, and a subsequent threat of new Army operations, came after a Palestinian attack on the Karni cargo crossing into Gaza left six Israeli civilians dead. Sixteen Palestinians have been killed, including seven civilians, since the Karni attack on Thursday.

There was a slight easing of tensions Monday as Israel appeared to hold back from a large army operation in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority ordered its security forces to prevent violence. That is still far short of Sharon's demand that militant groups be dismantled and disarmed, but Abbas insists he will persuade the groups into a cease-fire, not coerce them. He is due to travel to Gaza Tuesday for talks with militant leaders.

Sharon's strategy "is to buy time, to keep as much territory as possible, to convince the Palestinians that by fighting Israel you won't get anything and that if you achieve anything it is by negotiations and not terrorism. And that what is given won't be too generous," says Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political scientist.

In Mr. Hofnung's view, the road map will not be on the Israeli agenda at least until 2006 as the country focuses on the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip through next fall and then moves toward new Knesset elections.

Sharon envisions two scenarios for the Gaza withdrawal, which faces fierce opposition from Israeli hard-liners, and according to each of them, Israel will not be leaving under assaults such as the Karni attack, says Raanan Gissin, his spokesman.

Under the first scenario, Abbas moves against the militant groups and Israel coordinates aspects of the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority, Gissin says. In the second, under which Israel faces continued attacks, it unleashes the army with unprecedented ferocity. Gissin says: "No country in the world can tolerate continued attacks against its civilian population and settlements. If they want war, they will get war, but they will get so much that they will be begging for a cease-fire.

"We're running out of time and patience, the Palestinian Authority is running out of excuses, and the terrorists are running rampant. Abbas is Teddy Roosevelt in reverse. He speaks softly but does not have even a soft stick."

But Palestinian analyst Khader Abu Abarra says that Abbas is in a weak position vis-à-vis the militant groups precisely because there is no guarantee of tangible political concessions by Sharon. "Sharon is asking Abbas to perform a security job for him as if he is one of his generals. His message is that, 'If you refuse, you will end up like Arafat. We are ready to boycott you and strangle you.' "

In the view of Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Sharon does not believe that Abbas will dismantle the armed groups. "Sharon will have to pay lip service to the road map because Bush pays lip service to it," he says. "Basically his strategy is to demonstrate to the world that the Palestinians are not up to disarming the groups and to create the dynamics for bringing in Egypt and Jordan [to Gaza and the West Bank]."

In the view of Akiva Eldar, coauthor of "Lords of the Land," a history of the settlement movement, Sharon has not changed his intention of annexing at least half of the West Bank ever since he outlined it during a cabinet meeting in 1977. By suspending contacts with the Palestinian Authority, Sharon is seeking to undermine Abbas's standing as a peace partner in the eyes of the world, Eldar says. "Sharon does not want a partner because he knows what a partner means: giving up the West Bank."

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