Israel's test for Palestinian leadership: rein in militants

Before their elections in January, Palestinians are demanding that Israel pull back to pre-intifada positions.

Days before the late Yasser Arafat was rushed to a hospital in France, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained why he did not view the Palestinian leader as a negotiating partner.

"In the choice between a responsible and wise action in history, which may lead to painful compromises, and a 'holy war' to destroy Israel, Yasser Arafat chose the latter - the path of blood, fire, and martyrs," Mr. Sharon told the Knesset. "He seeks to turn a national conflict which can be terminated through mutual understanding into a religious war between Islam and Jews...."

The remarks were typical of the way Sharon has focused the conflict with the Palestinians on the personality of Mr. Arafat. But now that Arafat is gone, a key question is whether Israel supports a smooth Palestinian succession and the emergence of a strong leader.

Israeli officials say their intent is to enable the Palestinians to conduct elections and have a successful transition. But left-wing critics and Palestinian analysts say Israel does not want a viable Palestinian partner - so that it can avoid negotiations that would entail concessions on occupied territory in the West Bank.

But one senior Israeli official who is close to the decisionmaking process rejects this view: "We respect the Palestinian wish to have a democratic process."

In particular, he says, Sharon is wiling to allow Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to participate in the presidential election scheduled for Jan. 9, despite the objections of hardliners that doing so could call into question Israeli sovereignty in that part of the city, which was annexed in 1967.

The Palestinians are demanding that in advance of the elections Israel pull back to the positions it held before the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000.

Israel, meanwhile, says if new Palestinian leadership can assert control over militant groups before its planned withdrawal from the Gaza strip and northern West Bank, it might include the Palestinian Authority in the disengagement.

But "the Palestinian leadership needs its own disengagement plan from elements of Arafat's legacy: bloodshed, terrorism, hatred, incitement," says the senior official.

Palestinian analysts and lawmakers, however, say it is Israeli policy that will largely shape stability - or instability - on the Palestinian side.

To promote stability, they say, Israel must lift its restrictions on movement, which it says is necessary to prevent attacks but which Palestinians insist are a collective punishment that fragments their territory. Palestinians also want Israel to stop army incursions and assassinations, and halt settlement activity. "They need to give people room to breathe," says Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi.

In addition, they say Israel should release prisoners, including jailed intifada leader Marwan Barghouthi, who was convicted in June of murder and sentenced to 150 years in prison. Sharon ruled that out Sunday.

Yossi Sarid, a left-wing legislator, says that Israeli policies now resemble those in 2003, when Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, became prime minister after international pressure on Arafat. At the time, Israel continued its army operations and made no meaningful prisoner release.

"They made him collapse, they did not help him," Mr. Sarid says of the government. "I assume that if there will be a terrorist attack, they will immediately say the PA has not changed, that the new leaders are like Arafat, and everything will be as before." The Israeli government says it was Arafat, not Israel, who foiled Abbas.

Ramallah-based analyst Hani Masri also says that Israeli policy is unlikely to shift significantly. "Without the pretext of Arafat, Sharon might have to take some limited steps, to lift some roadblocks and release some prisoners, but there will not be substantial change," he says.

Mr. Masri says Sharon's demand that the new leadership move against armed groups, without receiving any tangible Israeli concession to mollify Palestinian opinion, is asking the impossible.

"This is a new leadership that is weak and lacks support and legitimacy," he says. The most Abbas can do now, he says, is ask the factions to sign a ceasefire.

Uzi Benziman, who has written a biography of Sharon, agrees that the Palestinian Authority must prove it can establish rule over its own territory.

"The first thing that has to happen is someone there must prove [he is] really a leader who can impose his power on the militant groups," he says. "The burden right now is on the Palestinian side."

If Sharon does not want a peace agreement with substantial concessions, he says, and if Abbas is capable of maintaining power, "it will be harder for Sharon to blame the Palestinians for failure of the peace process than it was when Arafat was alive," he says.

"But if Abbas is very weak or is removed or quits, it will be easy for Sharon to show the world that Israel does not have a [peace] partner."

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