JERUSALEM — The Palestinian Authority was under intense pressure this week to clamp down forcefully on terrorists in order to save the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire from collapse following this week’s horrific bus bombing in Jerusalem.
Israeli officials said that Washington had warned the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, that the entire peace process arising from President Bush’s road map — as well as the fate of Abu Mazen’s own regime — now hinges on an adequate Palestinian response to the Jerusalem suicide bombing. The bombing left at least 20 people dead, including five children.
The American message to the Palestinians followed a stern Israeli warning to Washington that the Israel-Palestinian peace process was on the verge of a meltdown. Prime Minister Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, were said by aides to be intent on giving the Palestinian leader “one more chance” to preserve the peace process by moving against terrorist groups. However, the Israeli leaders were under intense pressure of their own, both public and political, to respond firmly to the gruesome attack. Calibrating Israel’s response — so as to satisfy public demands without sinking the peace process — was occupying the political and security leadership as the weekend approached.
The bus bombing, one of the most gruesome of the three-year-old intifada, shocked most Israelis out of the sense of calm and normalcy that had developed during the seven-week-old cease-fire, leading to a widespread sense that a turning point had been reached. The powerful bomb devastated two buses and left horrifying scenes even by the standards of local bloodshed. More than 40 children were among the injured, and dismembered infants’ bodies were seen scattered on the street.
Only hours earlier, Sharon and Mofaz had firmed up plans to push ahead with troop withdrawals and gestures toward the Palestinians despite the renewed stirrings of violence. Immediately after the bombing, however, the leaders came under new pressure from Cabinet ministers and senior army officers to relaunch Israel’s “war on terror” in full force, despite the potential dismantling of the road map process.
Sharon and Mofaz ordered an immediate end to any further transfer of Palestinian towns to the P.A. and abruptly severed any official dialogue with Palestinian officials and officers. Israel also renewed curfews and closures on the West Bank and disassociated itself from the internal Palestinian cease-fire negotiated by the P.A. with Islamic militants in June. However, the Israeli decision-makers decided not to abandon the cease-fire altogether, instead ordering the army to carry out “surgical” preventive measures against Hamas and Islamic Jihad but to refrain from massive military operations that could bring down the entire Palestinian government.
The two Islamic organizations issued competing claims of responsibility for the atrocity, saying it was meant as a response to recent Israeli actions against Palestinian militants, in which several key Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists were killed. Hamas leaders claimed they intended to maintain the internal Palestinian cease-fire. But the scope of the bloodshed in Jerusalem made the suicide bombing a “strategic turning point,” Israeli officials said.
In any case, one ranking Israeli official noted, the strength of the blast and the extent of damage indicated that the perpetrators in fact intended to dismantle the cease-fire altogether. “Hamas is one of the most structured and disciplined organizations in the world,” the official said, “and nothing there is left to chance. This was a bomb that was intended to break up the peace process and, possibly, to bring about the downfall of Abu-Mazen.”
“This is probably Abu-Mazen’s last chance,” said another official in the Prime Minister’s Office. He added that without forceful and convincing Palestinian efforts against the terrorists, Sharon and Mofaz would be unable to withstand public demands for a forceful response. The two leaders were already facing harsh criticism, even before the bombing, following their decision this week to hand over four more West Bank towns to the Palestinians despite a spate of recent terrorist incidents.
After the bombing, protests against what hard-liners called Sharon’s “policy of appeasement” grew even louder. Cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman, of the National Union Party, called on Israel to bomb Yasser Arafat’s headquarters to oblivion, while fellow arch-hawk Uzi Landau of the Likud urged the army to carry out “mass arrests” of suspected terrorists and Islamic activists.
Calls for harsh retaliation came also from ultra-Orthodox leaders, currently in the political opposition. Most of the victims of the bus-bombing were charedi worshippers returning from evening prayers at the Western Wall, and Jerusalem’s usually reclusive ultra-Orthodox community was shocked by the carnage. Several spiritual leaders publicly interpreted the attack as “divine retribution” for religious sins. On the streets and in call-in programs, however, most charedim were reacting with outrage, urging the government to seek physical vengeance, here and now.
Despite the pressures, Sharon and Mofaz appeared intent on giving the cease-fire process a final chance. Aides cited a variety of reasons, including the wish to maintain maximum coordination with the Bush administration and to keep relying on America to pressure the Palestinians. While disdainful of Abu Mazen’s lack of strength and resolve, Sharon and Mofaz are convinced that the Palestinian leader is genuinely opposed to terrorism. They are said to be hopeful that the crisis created by the Jerusalem attack may yet precipitate a sea change in the Palestinian leadership’s attitude toward the terrorists. Indeed, shortly after the attack, the P.A. announced for the first time that it was cutting off its dialogue with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and pledged to eradicate terrorism from its midst.
The prime minister has other reasons for caution. Sharon and his top economic aides are extremely wary of the potential negative effects of a total breakdown of the cease-fire on the ailing Israeli economy. The seven-week-old cease-fire sparked initial signs of optimism and recovery, despite continuing indicators that show a deepening recession. Economic analysts said that a return to continual violence would once again turn away tourists and potential investors, and could bring the Israeli economy to the point of collapse.
Sharon might also be influenced by the Israeli public’s clamor for peace and quiet. While suspicious from the outset about the Palestinian leadership’s commitment to fighting terrorism, the public nonetheless basked in the calm of the cease-fire and reveled in the unexpected quiet of summer. The widespread popular desire to maintain the calm offset the pressure on Sharon from the right to abandon the cease-fire. Whether that counter-pressure would hold up following the bus bombing was unclear.
At the same time, it was also apparent that renewed violence might alleviate, at least temporarily, some of the growing public criticism of Sharon for his alleged misconduct in a host of ongoing controversies, scandals and legal investigations. Just before the bombing, Sharon was embroiled in yet another controversy, after it was revealed that he had intervened with a government official on behalf of childhood friends who were seeking compensation for land confiscated for a highway. Polls have shown that the public’s attitude towards Sharon is influenced above all by his diplomatic and security policies. Accordingly, the renewal of tensions with the Palestinians is likely to take some of the heat off the prime minister.
In a poll conducted just before the bus attack, published in Friday’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Sharon’s approval ratings had dipped for the first time to the negative, with 45% approving and 49% disapproving. An unprecedented 50% of the public said they believed Sharon was “involved in corruption.” But the same poll showed that the overriding factor influencing the public’s attitude toward Sharon was his policy on diplomatic and security affairs.
Thus, in the short run, the renewal of violence could, ironically, resuscitate the prime minister’s political strength. In the long term, however, if the violence resumes, criticism of Sharon’s personal conduct could converge with growing disgruntlement over his inability to bring peace and quiet. Public opposition to Sharon might then reach a critical mass, leading the political community to start looking elsewhere for a new leader.