Road map hits roadblock after week of escalating bloodshed

JERUSALEM — One violent week later, many are wondering if the "road map" for peace in the Mideast is already roadkill.

Last week's optimism during the official launch of the road map is forgotten as are the words of peace uttered in Aqaba, Jordan, by Israeli and Palestinian leaders at President Bush's urging.

Instead, the cycle of violence has returned.

Starting last Sunday, Palestinians and Israelis have been involved in one retaliatory attack after another, capped with Wednesday's bus bombing in downtown Jerusalem, which killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 90. Minutes later, an Israeli helicopter swarmed over Gaza, killing two Hamas leaders and five other Palestinians.

The week's events show how Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will continue to be confronted with one dilemma after another as he tries to satisfy Bush, handle the growing right-wing demands from his own party, and deal with a new round of Palestinian terrorism.

If Sharon does not respond to attacks, he may embolden terrorists who believe Israel's hands are tied by the road map, leading to further Israeli deaths. If Sharon does strike back, he may be blamed for provoking the terrorists and ruining the peace plan.

Indeed, it's difficult to know just how much military pressure may encourage the Palestinians to keep their obligations under the road map and how much may scuttle the plan's chances for success.

The volatile situation on the ground raises a fundamental question: Can three committed leaders impose a new reality based on the Aqaba vision, or are Israelis and Palestinians destined to be sucked into another vicious round of violence?

Israel has begun to fulfill its obligations under the peace plan by dismantling illegal West Bank settlement outposts. Sharon has had to face down fierce criticism from his right wing in the process, though critics contend that the settlement moves were largely symbolic.

As for the Palestinians, despite his declaration at Aqaba that the armed intifada was over, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas so far hasn't been able to deliver a cease-fire. Israeli officials see three main reasons for this: Hamas, the Fatah movement's Tanzim militia and Yasser Arafat.

Against the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas, Sharon is taking a hard line.

To exert pressure on the unruly armed gangs of the Tanzim — who collaborated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists on Sunday's joint attack, which killed four Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip — Sharon is allowing the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti to work for a cease-fire from his jail cell. Barghouti has more clout with the Tanzim than anyone else.

As for Arafat, Sharon again is considering expelling the Palestinian Authority president. The issue has come up in talks between Israeli and American officials, who agree that Arafat is doing all he can to obstruct and humiliate Abbas.

But Sharon seems determined to press ahead with the "Aqaba process" despite the shooting. In a 180-degree reversal of policy, he says he won't allow a lone terrorist to derail moves toward peace.

Before, Sharon had demanded a week of absolute quiet on the Palestinian side as a condition for talks. But given the new degree of American involvement, pressure and oversight, Sharon wants to be seen as giving Abbas every chance to lead the Palestinians out of the cycle of violence. He does not want to be blamed for the collapse of the process.

Still, given the degree of ongoing terrorist activity, Sharon on Tuesday ordered the army to take out Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, who has directed the organization's military operations in recent months, Israeli intelligence officials say.

Israeli officials say the strike at Rantissi was meant to convey a clear message: Israel will not stand for a situation in which Hamas tries to jack up its price for a cease-fire by continuing to kill Israelis.

The attack failed, killing two Hamas leaders but only wounding Rantissi. It elicited a stern rebuke from Bush as pundits around the world questioned Sharon's commitment to peace.

Sharon has expected that as long as he kept his side of the initial road map bargain, the Americans would allow him a free hand in fighting terrorism, even if it meant a delay in achieving a cease-fire.

But he may have miscalculated, however: Bush's criticism of the Rantissi strike, which he said might make it harder for Abbas to fight terrorism, was his strongest condemnation of an Israeli military move since Israel invaded the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002.

As for Abbas, Bush and Sharon both are convinced of his genuine commitment to the peace process, but they are less sure of his ability to deliver.

Israel and the United States have tried to sideline Arafat because of his alleged involvement with terrorism, but they agree that he remains a significant spoiler to Abbas' plans.

If Israeli and American officials decide that expelling Arafat would play to Abbas' advantage, they will go ahead. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the time was not yet ripe for Arafat's expulsion — but, he added cryptically, "it could be very soon."

Senior Fatah officials predict that if Arafat stays, Abbas won't last six months as prime minister. A lot will depend on whether he can achieve a cease-fire deal with Hamas, despite the attack on Rantissi.

Egypt sent its intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to mediate, and Barghouti reportedly has sent a mediator of his own to negotiate with Hamas leaders in Damascus.

Most observers believe Hamas leaders are not against a cease-fire per se but are holding out for a larger slice of power.

"What will Hamas have to negotiate about if it is not allowed to join the security forces or the P.A.'s ministerial positions?'' senior Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Al-Zahar asked Monday, welcoming Abbas' call for a resumption of the dialogue that Hamas broke off over the weekend.

But that was before the attack on Rantissi. It could take weeks before Hamas again is ready to discuss a cease-fire, and there could be further deterioration in that time.

If there is to be a new reality, observers say, it will depend on Bush finding a way to deal with the intricacies of Israeli domestic politics, Palestinian factionalism and the cycle of terror and retaliation.

At Aqaba, Bush went a long way toward winning the Palestinians' confidence and convincing them that the United States will not favor Israel.

In a key session with leaders from both sides, Bush came down several times in favor of the Palestinians. That helped strengthen the Abbas thesis that if the Palestinians can keep a cease-fire, Bush will deliver Israel.

Indeed, after the attack on Rantissi, the Palestinians already were calling on Bush to intervene. But as committed and determined as the president may be, given the situation on the ground, it's going to be a very tough task.