More talk, more terror: What should Sharon do now

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finds himself in a quandary: Does he halt recent momentum toward peace talks until the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, proves that he is willing to confront the terror groups?

Or, as the international community is demanding, does Israel make concessions to show Palestinians that Abbas' stated opposition to terror can pay dividends?

With Abbas in office less than a month, members of Sharon's inner circle already are expressing doubts about whether he can deliver.

And they believe the concessions they already have made toward Abbas — such as easing restrictions on Palestinians' movement in the West Bank — directly contributed to the renewed wave of attacks.

Senior Palestinian officials argue that Sharon has yet to give the embattled Abbas the concessions he needs to persuade Palestinian terrorists to agree to a cease-fire that could breathe life into the "road map" to Israeli- Palestinian peace, which the United States presented to the two sides late last month.

On both sides, there is uncertainty over how much time and energy the United States is prepared to invest to make the road map work.

Sharon had hoped Abbas' installation on April 29 would presage a drop in Palestinian terror and at least some initial political movement. But a new wave of suicide bombings, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's incessant machinations against Abbas and open defiance of Abbas by terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aksa Brigade have led Israeli officials privately to pronounce Abbas too weak to deal with Palestinian terrorism or take the peace process forward.

Arafat and the terrorists are using the bombings not only to hit at Israel but also to make Abbas's position untenable, the officials say.

Abbas "finds himself in an awkward position that the man who appears to be in charge there, Yasser Arafat, is in collusion with the terrorist organizations because he has a common interest to make the peace talks fail," Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner said.

In a three-hour meeting between the two prime ministers Saturday night, the first at such a high level since the Palestinian intifada erupted in September 2000, Sharon offered to withdraw Israeli troops from the northern Gaza Strip, allowing Abbas' forces to take control and show that they could maintain peace and quiet.

Over the last several months, the area has been used to fire Kassam rockets and mortar shells at nearby Israeli towns and villages, especially the Negev town of Sderot. It also is the area in which Mohammed Dahlan, the new Palestinian Authority minister responsible for security, is strongest.

Sharon also offered to withdraw from Palestinian city centers as soon as Abbas and Dahlan felt ready to take over.

In both cases, Israeli officials say, the Palestinians "found excuses" to decline, insisting that Israel formally accept the road map first.

The renewed attacks don't "mean that Sharon won't meet with Abbas again, but you will certainly understand that you can have no meaningful progress as long as blood is running in the streets," Pazner said.

Abbas urged Sharon to give him time to negotiate a hudna, or cease-fire, with the terrorist groups, saying he could succeed if Israel stopped its counter-terror raids and targeted killings of terrorist leaders.

What he had in mind was a yearlong cease-fire that would allow Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate without the threat or use of force, Abbas explained.

Dahlan added that it would take about a year to rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority security forces, after which they would be in a position to force the militants to adhere to an extended cease-fire.

Until the Abbas meeting, Sharon had opposed this approach on the grounds that the militants would simply use the cease-fire to regroup before launching a new round of terror. However, Palestinian sources say Sharon intimated at the meeting that if a cease-fire is achieved he would be ready to give the approach a chance.

If true, this constitutes a major change in the Israeli position.

Sharon's dilemma is how to continue fighting terror without undermining Abbas to such an extent that he will be too weak either to negotiate a cease-fire or use force against terrorists.

Getting the balance right will not be easy: If Israel continues targeted killings and major raids, Palestinians may see Abbas as a straw man who has not eased their suffering. If Sharon holds back, on the other hand, Hamas may be encouraged to launch even bigger attacks on the assumption that Israel will not retaliate.

Another major Israeli dilemma is what to do about Arafat. His alleged role in encouraging terror and deliberately undermining Abbas has led to renewed calls for his expulsion.

Three government ministers from Sharon's own Likud Party — Dan Naveh, Yisrael Katz and Tzachi Hanegbi — maintain that there will be no effective cease-fire as long as Arafat is around.

Sharon for now is against expelling Arafat. In Sunday's Cabinet meeting, Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, argued that Arafat would be more dangerous jetting around Europe playing for international sympathy than confined to his headquarters in Ramallah.

More than Arafat, though, it is the ongoing terror that constitutes the biggest threat to the road map and Abbas' chances of success.

According to Israeli security officials, there have been almost 50 attempted attacks in the three weeks since Abbas took office.

Five attacks in a space of two days early this week left at least 11 Israelis dead and scores wounded.

Hamas terror threatens not only Israel and the road map but Abbas himself, especially after some Hamas leaders charged that Abbas is considering trading the Palestinian refugees' demand to return to homes they abandoned inside Israel 55 years ago for Israeli acceptance of the road map.

Osama Hamdan, a Hamas representative in Lebanon, issued an open threat over the weekend: "Anyone who bargains over the refugees' right of return is bargaining over his neck," he declared.

Given the new wave of terror, many Israeli and Palestinian analysts agree that only a major American effort can save the road map.

And they are not optimistic. Reuven Paz, an expert on fundamentalist terror at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, says that "without a strong American lead, there will simply be more of the same: terror, counter-terror and indecisive meetings between Sharon and Abbas.''

Other Israeli pundits argue that Sharon's willingness to cancel a crucial meeting this week with President Bush because of the bombings does not augur well.

They believe it shows that Sharon, worried about possible American pressure on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is stalling — and that President Bush, with an eye on the Jewish vote as he moves into an election year, may allow Sharon to go on playing for time.