Attacks jolt Mideast peace plan

A spate of attacks by Palestinian militants left nine Israelis dead this weekend.

A fresh spate of violence punctured already faint hopes that the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers would soon follow Washington's road map to peace.

In historical terms, this is no surprise; new peace initiatives are routinely attacked by extremists on both sides. But knowing that doesn't make the challenge of developing trust and momentum for the road map any easier.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was due to arrive in Washington Monday, postponed his trip after a Palestinian suicide bomber stepped on a bus in a leafy Jerusalem neighborhood, blowing up himself and seven passengers, and wounding 20 others.

A second bomber nearby succeeded in killing only himself, while another suicide bomber on Saturday killed an Israeli couple in the Jewish settlement inside the city of Hebron.

The wave of attacks has come amid a Saturday night summit between Mr. Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the recently appointed Palestinian prime minister. It was the first meeting of Israeli and Palestinian leaders after more than two-and-a-half years of violence.

The swift toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and the appointment of Mr. Abbas were both viewed as possible breakthroughs on the hard path to Middle East peace.

But the changes do not seem to have melted positions or morphed political realities that have defined the conflict since the breakdown in peace talks three years ago this September.

Each side demands that the other take the first risky steps toward putting Bush's road map into play. Sharon says he will not sign on to the road map until he sees Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, use his new office to crack down on Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Abbas says that until Sharon accepts the road map - which calls on Israel to withdraw troops from Palestinian towns, dismantle settlement outposts, and allow the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 - there can be no concerted attempt to fight the Islamic fundamentalist movements.

The long-anticipated weekend summit between the prime ministers, so rare in part because Sharon has refused on principle to meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, was characterized as "productive" and "constructive" by officials leaving the late-night meeting.

But it was bookended by the two suicide bombings and came at the end of a week in which Israeli military offensives in the Gaza Strip killed eight Palestinians. Sunday, Israeli forces also shot and killed an 18-year-old Palestinian man in the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, and wounded three in clashes with stone-throwers in the West Bank city of Nablus, Reuters reported.

The three-hour meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen ought to portend good.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, Sharon floated the possibility of brokering a compromise plan to turn over a new leaf: Israel would pull its troops out of the northern part of the Gaza Strip and declare a truce there, simultaneously giving security chief Mohammed Dahlan a chance to prove that the Palestinian Authority is able to rein in militants.

But instead, people here woke up to what seems like a Middle Eastern interpretation of the movie "Groundhog Day" - same story, different victims.

Even before the latest violence, Sharon has refused to endorse the road map because he feels that, among other things, it too closely mirrors the failed Oslo Accords. It sets, for example, a timetable for the path each side should take, but Sharon believes progress should be based on achievements - not deadlines.

"We're not going to commit ourselves to do anything until we see proof of real will and capability on the part of Abu Mazen," says Mark Heller, a political scientist at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "The mood in Israel now is that we're not going to give them rewards for not doing what they should not have done in the first place. We're not going to hold out a carrot for them."

The catch, Palestinians say, is that they can hardly fight terror when their security infrastructure has been effectively destroyed by the Israeli military in the course of the uprising.

But, says Mr. Heller, if Sharon is seen to be holding out a hand to Abu Mazen - such as easing restrictions on Palestinians to bolster him in comparison to a still-strong Arafat - it may make it even more difficult for Abu Mazen to secure a power base.

"Being nice to him might even backfire. Already he's subject to accusations of being an Israeli-American stooge. The more you hug him, the more vulnerable he is," says Heller.

Palestinians, however, argue that preconditions are what is keeping the road map out of reach. Abu Mazen says he cannot start making the moves Israel requires until Sharon accepts the very formula outlined by the Bush administration - which ends with the creation of a Palestinian state in the next two to 2-1/2 years.

Launching a campaign against Palestinian rejectionist groups can only become more palatable if Palestinian lives become livable, says Ziad Abu Amar, the minister of culture in the Palestinian Authority's new cabinet.

"Sharon needs to do things on the micro and macro level," he says. "He must first set the stage by accepting the road map. It doesn't make sense anymore to say: 'I have no peace partner.' Second, he can start with some steps to ease the restrictions on the Palestinian people, like lifting road blocks, ending sieges on many areas, stopping assassinations. He should give the new cabinet and the prime minister some breathing space. The man [Abu Mazen] is under terrible pressure to do something, but they want him to do it while they're destroying Palestinian homes and property, and that doesn't give him much of a chance," he says.

"If they are under constant attack, how are they are going to maintain order?" he asks. "You don't tie their hands and ask them to swim."

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