Israeli-Palestinian Testing Time
Just wait until the next suicide bombing, many Middle East experts warned. That will be the first real test of the revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
That test occurred last Friday, when a suicide bomber killed five Israelis outside a Tel Aviv nightclub. But while the attack shattered the two-week-old truce between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli government, it looks as if the leaders on both sides are doing everything they can to pass this test and avoid falling back into a pattern of attack, counterattack, and impasse.
In threatening to freeze talks unless the Palestinians smash the militants, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is keeping his rhetoric bayonette-sharp. Yet he's also giving the other side time to respond to this first crisis. As of this writing, Israel has not yet retaliated with a military strike against the Palestinians - although it has warned it could.
For his part, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians' recently elected president, condemned the bombing and says he won't tolerate further attacks. Palestinian police have arrested three suspects in relation to the bombing. And Mr. Abbas says he's exchanging information with the US, Europe, and Israel, which has made several bombing-related arrests, as well.
The matter is complicated by the claim that Islamic Jihad was behind the bombing. Abbas has limited ability to control this Palestinian militant group, whose leaders are headquartered in Lebanon and Syria. In another welcome sign, Israel appears to acknowledge this. Vice Premier Shimon Peres blamed Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad over the weekend, saying the orders to attack came from his country. On Monday, Israel shared with diplomats its intelligence linking Syria with Islamic Jihad and the Tel Aviv attack.
No question, the Palestinians still have a long way to go to control militants. Fortuitously, British Prime Minister Tony Blair Tuesday hosts a high-level international conference for the Palestinians that should help them with just this challenge. In London, Abbas is expected to receive support to help strengthen his budding democracy, including financial assistance and training for his disarrayed security forces.
In the past, Israel has said it's less concerned with 100 percent results than with a 100 percent Palestinian effort to stop the militants. So far, Abbas has been willing to expend the effort. If he keeps this up - and if Israel continues to encourage his forward steps - the militants will have far less chance of derailing the peace process.