Israeli-Palestinian balancing act

Peace gestures gain momentum, but Sharon and Abbas must still face hard-line opposition groups.

Israel is expected in the coming days to transfer control of four West Bank cities to Palestinian security forces, a move that would broaden a truce in Gaza and build on a tentative calm prior to the much anticipated summit between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas scheduled for next week.

Not since the unveiling of the US-backed road map peace plan a year and a half ago have there been so many signs of progress toward halting the Israeli-Palestinian violence that began in September 2000. The new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is scheduled to visit the region Sunday to meet with both sides in an effort to consolidate the gains.

But observers caution that in order to transform the fragile calm into a durable cease-fire, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas still must reach an understanding on a host of prickly matters such as prisoner releases, disarming militants, and lifting travel restrictions on Palestinians. That could provide both leaders with enough political capital to face down domestic opposition.

"There are remarkable achievements until now compared to two years ago, but the golden path still remains to be discovered," says Guy Bechor, a Middle East expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

Over the weekend, Israel's military said it would stop all proactive operations in Gaza after some 3,000 Palestinian police officers were deployed there to prevent rocket fire into Israel. The deployment helped lay the groundwork for the meeting on a West Bank pullback between Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and former Palestinian security chief Mohamad Dahlan.

For the first time since 2002, security authority for the cities of Ramallah, Jericho, Tulkarm, and Qalqilya will be restored to Palestinian police. Though the withdrawal will give Abbas a chance to establish law and order in the West Bank, critics note that the pullback is only symbolic because Israel's military is largely absent from the city centers except for occasional incursions.

"Theoretically, things are going well. In the reality of implementation, we still have to wait,'' says Palestinian cabinet minister Kadoura Fares. The withdrawal "might be good pictures for the media, but it won't lighten the daily burden of the Palestinians. I don't think that that is something that worries the Palestinian people more than the checkpoints."

Another test of the fledgling Israeli-Palestinian calm will be talks on freeing thousands of prisoners. Palestinian officials have echoed demands by militant Hamas that Israel release some 8,000 detainees, while Israel has signaled that the number will be in the hundreds.

The Israeli concessions would give Abbas leverage in negotiations with Hamas on formalizing a two-week cessation of attacks. Sharon was criticized for not making enough gestures to the Palestinians during a three-month cease-fire in 2003, a failed experiment that led to Abbas's resignation from as Palestinian prime minister. But Sharon is also expected to put pressure on Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to start disarming militant groups.

"Abu Mazen has a dilemma. On one hand he must compromise with the other militant groups, but if he goes too far with these organizations, Israel will protest and won't accept the [cease-fire]. If he goes too far with Israel, the militants will protest," says Mr. Bechor. For Israel "the dilemma is more freedom for the Palestinians vis-à-vis exposure to terrorism. This is almost an impossible dilemma to solve."

The gestures toward the Palestinians represent a risk for Sharon, who last week vowed he would not compromise Israel's security as the two sides progress toward peace negotiations. On the other hand, strengthening a moderate Palestinian leader like Abbas may bolster Sharon as he seeks to advance a plan to withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza and evacuate Israeli communities.

On Sunday, more than 130,000 demonstrators attended a Jerusalem rally sponsored by the Yesha Council, the umbrella group representing settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, which stepped up the pressure on the government to hold a referendum on the pullout. But if Sharon and Abbas can show progress in their first meeting since 2002, it will help the Israeli prime minister neutralize right-wing opposition to the plan by demonstrating he has a Palestinian partner in the withdrawal, say observers.

"If the unilateralism becomes bilateral, it means there is someone to hand it over to. That will firm up support in the center'' of public opinion, says Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

Israeli concessions aimed at easing conditions for Palestinians could boost Abbas's public approval at a time when Hamas politicians have scored victories against the ruling Fatah party in local elections last week. With a legislative vote scheduled for July, progress on ending the violence would help Abbas burnish Fatah's credentials. "Its power in the decision-making process is shaken, and its national program is threatened,'' wrote Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al Hayat Al Jadidah.

Support for Abbas in the international community would also counteract the growing influence of Islamic militants, providing the Palestinian president the legitimacy denied to Hamas. Ms. Rice's visit is expected to reestablish an active role by the US in facilitating the Palestinian-Israeli contacts.

According to Israel's Haaretz newspaper, the US has already reengaged by pressuring Israel to rescind a regulation allowing the government to seize land in Jerusalem owned by West Bank Palestinians who are cut off by the separation barrier. An embassy official declined to comment on the report, but says the US opposes any regulation that changes the status of areas in Jerusalem slated for negotiation.

"This is a moment of opportunity," says Paul Patin, the US embassy spokesman. "We certainly need for more to happen. We haven't gotten back to the road map yet, but progress is progress, and we'll take what we can get."

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