Palestinian militants sent a violent message Thursday to Israel and their prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas. A suicide bomber killed one person and injured 10 others at an Israeli train station in an act that underscores the challenges facing a US-backed plan for peace in the region.
While the peace plan revolves around Israelis and Palestinians, the majority of whom want an end to their 32-month conflict, it is also crucial to the United States' larger hopes for the Middle East.
The bomb attack came just a day after Mr. Abbas presented his cabinet to President Yasser Arafat, thereby paving the way for President Bush to publish the "road map" peace plan.
The plan outlines a course for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
"The timing of the bombing was a clear message to both [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and Abbas and presents Palestinians with a question," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. "Are we forever going to be crushed and considered terrorists? For Abbas, the challenge is dealing with angry [militants]. For Sharon, the question is how far will he go to relieve conditions for the Palestinians and how he'll deal with the road map."
Mr. Arafat's acceptance of the cabinet, after weeks of bitter wrangling and intense foreign pressure, emphasizes his continued centrality in Palestinian politics, despite US and Israeli attempts to sideline him.
It also sets in motion events that will create tremendous pressure on both Abbas and Mr. Sharon. Abbas faces the task of reining in militants and ending attacks on Israel. He risks sparking internal conflict at a time when his society can ill afford more trouble.
Mr. Sharon also faces the prospect of internal strife, but on a lesser scale. Parties in his coalition adamantly oppose the road map and could threaten to leave, robbing the prime minister of his slim parliamentary majority and possibly spurring elections.
"The storm will be tomorrow, in the Israeli government," says Mr. Abdul Hadi.
The April 23 compromise between Arafat and Abbas came on the last day Abbas could legally present his Cabinet. Both Arafat and Abbas saved face; Abbas got his choice for security minister, Mohammed Dahlan while Arafat was assured he would be consulted on major security issues. The 88-seat Palestinian Legislative Council is widely expected to approve Abbas's selections before the April 30 deadline, at which point the US can move forward with the road map. Many analysts see the Bush administration's efforts to broker peace - or at least to be seen trying - as integral to their efforts to establish a democratic, pro-US Iraq.
Palestinian suffering - graphically documented by satellite news channels - fuels a great deal of Arab rage toward Israel and the US. Settling the conflict in a way that is seen as fair would generate an enormous amount of Arab goodwill towards the US and improve its chances of success in Iraq.
The prospect that Israel may be pressured to accept the road map because of US regional interests causes unease here, especially on the political right. Some analysts say it can't happen, citing Arafat's presence, continued Palestinian violence, and the 2004 US elections.
"If Arafat is involved, if terrorism continues, the road map will not be taken seriously," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "The US will not put any pressure on Israel ... regardless of the debt owed to [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair or European political correctness. The Bush administration, two years into its term, can't compromise on terror anyplace. It's not feasible."
With Abbas's cabinet set for approval, the ball is in Sharon's court. Palestinians say they are reforming their economic and political structures as Israel and the US have demanded and now it is time for Sharon to start delivering.
"We've made our concessions, we're naked, there's nothing left to give," says Abdul Hadi. "We'll now watch how Israel deals with the road map."
Palestinians want to see an end to arrests, assassinations, and army raids, and an easing of restrictions that prevent people from traveling between towns and sometimes even leaving their homes. They argue this will ease the rage driving individual attacks on Israel, but they acknowledge that Abbas will have to work hard to subdue ideologically driven groups like Hamas.
Sharon insists that security come before he makes any concession. "We can't have terror and negotiations simultaneously," says a foreign ministry spokesperson. "Everyone wants a situation where we can proceed with the peace process and that means an end to terror. Israel is encouraged by [Abbas] and we're hopeful we'll see changes on the ground, but that's not what we saw this morning [with the suicide bombing]. "
Palestinian legislator Mohammed Hourani says this argument leaves the peace process hostage to extremists on both sides. "If Sharon makes this argument there will never be a second step," he says. "Most Palestinians and Israelis want a political solution. Sharon can't ignore them and see only the five people who don't want peace. He must see that if we go to peace there will be people who will try to stop this process. The question is whether he has the will."
Even so, Israeli analysts say Sharon's ability to respond to the plan will depend on the effort Abbas makes to stop attacks like Thursday's.
"If there is serious and meaningful change on the part of the Palestinians in terms of security and the political environment, Sharon has a lot of room to maneuver," says Mark Heller, senior researcher at the Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies.
But "Sharon's going to have trouble with the right-wing parties if he agrees to anything apart from the status quo," Mr. Heller adds. "The more critical question is how he does with public opinion and the other parties, which depends on what circumstances he goes ahead in or if he's pressured by the US to go ahead."
US pressure has also roiled Palestinian politics. Abbas, vocally supported by the US, has become associated with outside interests.
Arafat reinforced this perception by agreeing to the cabinet only after high-profile foreign pleas on Abbas's behalf from Mr. Blair, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the foreign ministers of Qatar and Greece, and the Arab League secretary-general.
Five weeks of jockeying to form the cabinet has left Abbas politically weakened and ordinary Palestinians are skeptical about the road map.
"The question is, can Abbas open that small window for his society," says Abdul Hadi. "A lot depends on how much Sharon lifts the siege. We are not asking for Israelis to trust us, we are asking for a chance, a test. Give us time."
The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority named key Cabinet members Wednesday and agreed to play a dual role as interior minister in a deal worked out with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Prime Minister/Interior Minister - Mahmoud Abbas
The Palestinian Authority's first prime minister was one of the signatories to the 1993 accords that launched the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and the 1995 interim peace agreement.
State Minister for Security Affairs - Mohammed Dahlan
A moderate who quit his post as security chief for Gaza in 2001, he is seen as one of the few Palestinian leaders willing to crack down on militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Finance Minister - Salam Fayad
Retains his post, which he assumed in June with a mandate to reform murky Palestinian finances and make them open to accounting. A nonpolitical economics expert, his efforts have been warmly received in world financial circles.
Foreign Minister - Nabil Shaath
Shaath wins recognition in his longtime role as the Palestinian Authority's de facto foreign minister. He headed the first PLO delegation to the United Nations.
Minister of Trade - Maher al-Masri
He served as minister of economy and trade since 1996. Masri has led economic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
SOURCE: ASSOCIATED PRESS