After air strikes, cease-fire now seems more possible

JERUSALEM — The violence that threatened to scuttle the nascent "road map" peace plan last week seems to have had quite a different result.

It has redoubled the resolve of American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders to prevent terrorism from wrecking the reconciliation process launched in Aqaba, Jordan, just a fortnight ago.

In a desperate effort to salvage the process amid deadly violence, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians have been exerting pressure on Hamas, third parties and each other. It now seems possible that that pressure could lead to a cease-fire.

In an ironic twist of fate, the lethal post-Aqaba wave of terror might finally get the road map on the road.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon maintains that Israel's decision to target Hamas leaders like Abdel Aziz Rantissi yielded two dividends: It forced Palestinian terrorist groups to consider a temporary cease-fire with Israel more seriously. It also pushed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas closer to taking immediate responsibility for security in some of the Palestinian areas.

Abbas had hoped to wait several months before taking over responsibility for security, allowing the Palestinian Authority to rebuild its armed forces. He also had hoped waiting would enable him to convince Hamas and other terrorist groups to declare a cease-fire in the meantime, thereby ducking the sort of confrontation with those groups that taking over security responsibility might entail.

But the strike against Rantissi, and Israel's strikes against other leading Hamas members in subsequent days, truncated the timetable. Feeling their own lives threatened, Hamas leaders resumed talks on an immediate cease-fire.

Abbas wanted to see the military strikes stopped quickly, too. If they continued, Abbas risked being accused of failure and forced out of office.

On the other hand, the United States said it would underwrite an Israeli pledge to halt the strikes if Abbas took security responsibility for some Palestinian areas. Such a move could save not only Abbas' job, but also the peace process he has been charged with pursuing.

Palestinians and some members of the Israeli opposition maintain that Sharon, in trying to kill Rantissi, Hamas' No. 2 leader, deliberately was trying to scuttle a peace plan he ultimately distrusts.

Sharon sees things very differently. Immediate after the Aqaba summit, he dreaded a repeat of the Oslo conundrum: Terror groups supposedly beyond the Palestinian Authority's control attack Israel, the Palestinian Authority does little to stop them and Israel is pressured not to respond to avoid allowing the "extremists" to undermine the "peace process."

At first, the pattern appeared to be repeating: Just days after the summit, an unprecedented joint attack by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aksa Martyr's Brigade, the terrorist wing of Abbas' own Fatah movement, left four Israeli soldiers dead.

When Israel responded by targeting Rantissi on June 10, President Bush took the international lead in criticizing Israel for ostensibly undermining the new peace process.

Quickly, however, the tenor changed: After a Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem on June 11 that killed 17 people, Bush called on the international community to join together against Hamas. Israeli strikes against Hamas members in the ensuing days made it clear that as long as terrorist groups were allowed to operate in the Palestinian areas, there would be no peace and quiet.

Sharon believes that by attacking Rantissi he turned the tables on Hamas: He signaled to the Palestinians and the world that until the Palestinians can make good on the pledge to dismantle terrorist groups, Israel will not allow its hands to be tied. The strong American desire to see the road map succeed seemed to have made Hamas leaders legitimate targets.

Israel's military brass fully backs Sharon's approach. The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, is convinced that despite international criticism of the strike, the assault on Hamas' leadership has fundamentally changed the situation.

During a 50th anniversary celebration this week for the paratrooper brigade in which he began his army career, Ya'alon declared that Hamas was "on the verge of surrender and already negotiating a cease-fire." If the cease-fire doesn't work out now, Ya'alon intimated, he might have to send ground forces into Gaza to finish the job of disarming the Hamas threat.

Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet security service, told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel should not fear pushing Abbas into a confrontation with Hamas that he isn't ready for. On the contrary, Dichter said, with 20,000 men under its command in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority should be more than a match for a few hundred Hamas and Islamic Jihad fundamentalists.

Americans, too, have been playing a pressure game aimed at isolating Hamas and achieving a cease-fire, while retaining the confidence of both Israelis and Palestinians. This has taken the form of pressure on:

*Israel to suspend targeted killings if a cease-fire is declared.

*The Palestinian Authority to use a cease-fire to assert its authority over Hamas.

*European leaders to publicly denounce Hamas and cut off the flow of funds to the group.

*Arab states to stop funding Hamas and pressure both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to accept a cease-fire.

More than anything else, it is this American pressure that has created the conditions for a possible cease-fire.

The American pressure also has succeeded in getting Egypt to again actively mediate between the Palestinian Authority and the terrorist groups.

The Egyptians sent intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and his deputy Mustafa al-Buheiri to lean on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Hamas leaders. Suleiman threatened Arafat with public condemnation if he doesn't stop trying to undermine Abbas, while al-Buheiri showed Hamas an Israeli commitment to the United States to stop targeted killings if Hamas adheres to a cease-fire.

Abbas' key slogan is "one political authority and one armed force,'' which effectively means disbanding Hamas and the other terrorist groups as rival military powers.

He hopes a cease-fire will enable him to do just that, while Hamas hopes to use a truce to rebuild and retain its militia, enabling it to challenge Abbas politically and militarily.

To a large extent, the outcome of that internal Palestinian struggle will determine the fate of the road map and the peace process it seeks to revive — and Sharon's aggressive strikes at Hamas last week kept that issue squarely in the spotlight.