For Sharon and Abbas, political victories buoy cease-fire

The Knesset approved $871 million in compensation for Gaza settlers; Abbas allies named for his cabinet.

After four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas share an interest in maintaining a calm that enables both to advance their separate, yet intertwined, political agendas.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Sharon's plans for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, to begin in June, took a major step forward. The Knesset voted 59 to 40 to approve almost $900 million in compensation for the approximately 8,000 settlers who are to be relocated. And Mr. Abbas took a further step toward consolidating his rule as successor to Yasser Arafat when his Fatah movement approved names for a new cabinet that includes several of his key allies.

The gains for the two leaders augur well for the current mutual cease-fire, but sharp differences persist between them over whether, when, and how to implement the international peace blueprint known as the road map, analysts say.

"Sharon and Abbas are in competition but they have shared interests in the short term," says Gaza Strip political analyst Hassan Kashif. "They have a common interest in calm."

"I envision sincere cooperation between them to implement the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza," Mr. Kashif adds. He says the two sides will also be able to agree on Israeli army pullbacks to the lines that existed before the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000.

While Sharon is interested in a smooth Gaza pullout and avoiding the appearance that Israel is running from Hamas fire, Abbas needs stability to revive the Palestinian economy, attract international aid, and complete an electoral process that began with municipal elections in December and will continue in this summer with legislative contests and internal Fatah polling, analysts say.

Sharon told a press conference this week that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have already begun to coordinate on the Gaza withdrawal. "I think [coordination] is very important for us, because first I would like that the areas that we are leaving will not in the future be in the hands of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or other terrorist groups, but rather in the hands of the PA," he said.

In a shift on the Palestinian Authority stance toward Gaza withdrawal, Abbas spoke positively of Sharon's planned step during an interview with The New York Times this week and praised the Israeli premier for standing up to pressure from the Israel's far right.

Previously, the PA had been markedly cool to the withdrawal, viewing it as a means to freeze the peace process and consolidate Israel's hold on the West Bank.

"There has been an internal Palestinian discussion with some saying the withdrawal is positive because it means Israel is leaving occupied land and others saying it is not really a withdrawal at all but a redeployment that leaves Gaza as one big prison," explains Wadei Awawdy, a correspondent for al-Ayyam daily newspaper. "Abbas is now saying that the withdrawal is very important because it means a giving up on the idea of greater Israel and will help in achieving a future negotiated withdrawal in the West Bank."

In the wake of his Knesset victory, Sharon still faces another parliamentary test by March 31, the deadline for passing the state budget. Analysts say he has a good chance of prevailing over rebel legislators in his Likud Party who oppose Gaza withdrawal, but add that his main challenge for implementation could be violence from extremists. This, they say, could include attempted assassinations, an effort to strike at Jerusalem's sensitive Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif holy site, or an outbreak of fighting when soldiers carry out the actual evacuations.

"I fear very much that there may be loss of life among Jews and an uproar," says Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "This could cause a parliamentary crisis that would stop the withdrawal," he says.

On the Palestinian side, the new cabinet is to be presented to the legislative council for approval Tuesday. While its makeup has not been announced publicly, Abbas ally Brig. Gen. Nasser Youssef has confirmed he will serve as interior minister in place of Hakam Balawi. Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief who enjoys good relations with the US and Israel, has also confirmed he will be joining the cabinet.

"These appointments are a message to the Palestinian factions and to the whole world that Abbas is serious about imposing the rule of law and upholding the cease-fire," says Awawdy.

The cabinet is to hold office until the July parliamentary election, with a formidable agenda including political reform, economic revival, internal tranquility, the removal of armed gunmen from the streets, and encouraging Hamas to move toward further political participation and away from violence.

To win over public opinion, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will need to gain meaningful prisoner releases and a substantial lifting of checkpoints, things that only Sharon can deliver, the analysts say.

Differences between the two sides over the latter issue this week held up a planned transfer of authority to the PA in Jericho.

"Abu Mazen's success depends 50 percent on Abu Mazen and 50 percent on Sharon," says Kashif, the Gaza analyst.

As for Sharon, while he views Abbas as a partner for the Gaza withdrawal, he is at the same time wary of the Palestinian president's agenda of reviving the negotiations called for in the road map.

"Sharon sees Abbas also as a risk liable to bring about a situation in which he faces a peace process and pressure to make concessions he does not want to make," Mr. Alpher says. "He wants to cooperate with Abbas as long as that doesn't mean negotiations over territory."

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