Palestinians: Do they have guts to keep up peace path

About a week ago, Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip made a fatal mistake. They were assembling a nasty bicycle bomb, one with the explosives hidden inside the tubing of the bike that would later be ridden by a suicide bomber.

But before they could dispatch the bomber toward an Israeli target, they made the mistake of parking it near the headquarters of Palestinian Minister of State for Security Muhammad Dahlan in Jabaliya where it exploded prematurely, causing little damage.

Dahlan quickly dispatched masked officers from his Preventative Security Service, and they stormed the house where the Islamic Jihad men were sitting. The officers summarily drilled bullets through two of them, who died on the spot.

Three others were carted off without trial to prison, where they have been incarcerated since.

That shows that when it comes to himself, Dahlan knows how to act. It also lends credence to those in the defense establishment who believe that Dahlan could stem the violence, such as Tuesday's suicide bombing, if he wanted to — but he doesn't want to.

But the question is, does the Palestinian Authority have not only the guts but the capability to take the dramatic steps the United States is pressing it to take to keep the shaky peace process alive?

That a strike against Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Tanzim-Fatah renegades and the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine will come is certain. The question is who will do it first: the Palestinians interested in preserving the most promising peace process for them in years, or a seething Israel certain the so-called hudna (cease-fire) vaporized in Jerusalem's deadly bombing of worshippers returning from Judaism's holiest site?

The Israeli defense establishment is split regarding the Palestinian Authority's ability to confront the armed groups. It is generally believed that Dahlan can act effectively in the Gaza Strip, his stronghold, despite the popularity of Hamas. Military intelligence believes Dahlan will also be able to take decisive action in the West Bank, where Hamas and Islamic Jihad are weaker.

But the Shin Bet, Israel's Security Service, has little faith in Dahlan's capabilities in the West Bank. That is because chaos reigns and the preventive security services are quibbling among themselves and are against letting "the Gazan" (Dahlan) "stick his nose here."

Reserves Col. Shalom Harari, former adviser on Arab affairs in the Defense Ministry, believes the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is too weak, and Yasser Arafat was undermining efforts for the road map to succeed. Abbas "doesn't have the minimum tools — i.e., the consolidation of all the security forces. Arafat has been able to keep control of many of the Palestinian security forces, include Force 17, intelligence and even the Preventative Security Services in the West Bank."

The coming days will tell which side is right. Meanwhile, the Defense establishment is even being told Dahlan and Abbas are "impotent" and preparing to strike at terrorists who have been using the cease-fire to rebuild themselves and stock up.

Ironically, Israel long sought a pragmatic Palestinian leadership. And we got what we wished for. Israel has always hung a Damocles sword over the Palestinian Authority with the ultimate threat of sweeping the organization into history's garbage can as yet another failed phenomenon to achieve Palestinians statehood.

But this time around, Israel's options are limited since it wants to stick to the "road map."

"We don't want to go stage an Operation Defensive Shield II," said Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim, referring to last year's capture of the West Bank.

"It is clear we cannot accept this quietly, and we will act against these murderous organizations as we have."

Boim also dismissed the U.S. pressure on the Palestinians.

"When is there heavy American pressure? When there is a terrible attack," Boim said. "We would expect American pressure from the beginning on the Palestinian Authority. I never saw this, and it's like they suddenly remembered that the blood of our children is crying to the heavens."

The Palestinian Authority says it is against taking actions that could spark a civil war between it and the Islamic bloc. It had preferred instead to come to arrangements with winks and bear hugs and temporary cease-fires.

Jerusalem's suicide bombing symbolized a number of things. It marked for most Israelis the end of the hudna. If the present Palestinian leadership doesn't take the right steps to save themselves, then this moment will be remembered as the beginning of the countdown to the resignation of Abbas.