Israel ready to take big steps if Abbas moves against terror

jerusalem | After Mahmoud Abbas’ convincing victory this week in the election for Palestinian Authority president and the establishment of a new moderate government in Israel, the big question is what steps will each take toward making peace.

Abbas’ strategy, it seems, will be to get the international community to press Israel to make concessions.

He will try to convince Palestinian radicals that diplomatic pressure by the international community is likely to be far more effective than Palestinian military pressure ever was or will be.

The key to future progress could lie in how he goes about drumming up this pressure. He could simply aim for a cease-fire and avoid any further reform.

Israeli pundits say there is much talk on the Palestinian side about building a state and ending the prevalent chaos.

One of the ways to do that would be to cut the number of armed Palestinian organizations from 14 to 3 and place them under a single command, as the Middle East “road map” demands.

Abbas would not necessarily disarm the militiamen but rather persuade them to join one of the three new legitimate forces with their weapons.

If he succeeds — and that’s a big if — it will be extremely difficult for Israel to go on claiming that he hasn’t carried out his part of the road map reforms.

For the time being, both Israel and the Palestinians now seem to have pragmatic leaders. There is quiet optimism on both sides, with both leaders intimating that they will be prepared to make far-reaching concessions if the other side reciprocates with bona fide peace moves.

But there are huge question marks over whether they will be able to pull it off.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s internal political standing was strengthened Monday, Jan. 10, with the establishment of a new national unity government.

Sharon will have new flexibility to pursue his Gaza disengagement plan with the unity coalition, which brings the Labor Party and United Torah Judaism together with his own Likud Party.

However there are problems: The new coalition, which survived one budgetary vote this week, still must face two others by March 31. If the budget does not pass, the government must resign and new elections would be scheduled, putting the Gaza pullout in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, earlier this week Sharon called Abbas to congratulate him. Abbas won 62 percent of the vote in his effort to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died in November, as the president of the Palestinian Authority.

According to Israel Radio, Sharon and Abbas will meet in the coming weeks.

In outlining the Israeli position toward the Palestinians, Sharon has made clear that Abbas must disarm recalcitrant terrorist militias before substantive peace talks can begin. But Abbas says he hopes to achieve a cease-fire without confronting the militias, and that should be enough to get negotiations going.

Sharon aides retort that unless there is a sea change on the Palestinian side, a cease-fire, even if achieved, will not last. Therefore, they say, Israel will not re-engage in peace talks based on the internationally approved road map unless the Palestinians take steps to ensure that violence does not flare up again.

Those steps include collecting terrorist weapons, ending incitement against Israel and instituting key governmental reforms.

A senior Israeli official said Sharon sees a cease-fire that does not entail disarming the militias as a dangerous trap because then, if the Palestinians don’t get what they want at the negotiating table, they simply can revert to terror.

The expectations for Abbas’s success are high. The buzzword among Palestinians is “change.” There is a widespread belief that change is possible.

In his victory speech, Abbas, who won 62 percent of the vote, spoke about the “struggle ahead” but that struggle was not in confronting Israel, or, in Arafat-like vein, in sending “a million martyrs to Jerusalem.”

Rather, Abbas said, the big task would be to build a Palestinian state in which people could live in security. “There is a difficult mission ahead: To build our state, to achieve security for our people,” he said.

The mission, he said, means giving “our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state.”

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