TEL AVIV — After disagreements forced them to cancel a planned summit this week — the second such cancellation this month — Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas turned their sights inward and moved to solidify their domestic support bases.
The summit, which had been scheduled for Tuesday, was intended to show renewed momentum toward peace following last month’s Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. America and the European Union have been pressuring the two leaders to meet and agree on steps toward reviving the so-called road map to peace. But the two sides remain deadlocked over how to proceed and who should make the first move.
A previous summit was scheduled for October 2, but it was canceled after a flare-up of Palestinian violence. Sharon and Abbas have not met since June.
Looming in the background is the rapid deterioration of Gaza into near chaos in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal, coupled with the failure of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority to impose order and with the steadily growing influence of the radical Islamic group Hamas.
Gaza has been plagued by a spate of violence this month, including gunfights between Hamas and P.A. forces, attacks on police stations, and kidnappings of police, journalists and political leaders. Some of the incidents were blamed on Hamas activists seeking to intimidate Palestinian security forces. Others appear to be the work of armed groups that are linked ostensibly to Abbas’s Fatah movement but seen widely as little more than street gangs.
Fearing a strong Hamas showing in Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January 2006, Abbas is calling for a series of Israeli concessions to strengthen his hand. Israel insists that he first show his ability to impose order and confront Hamas head on.
In the face of the deterioration in Gaza, Abbas was under pressure. In recent weeks his own followers were persuading him to dismiss his Cabinet, which is led by his longtime rival, Ahmed Qurei. Instead the two men met this week for the first time in weeks and pledged to work together at least until the elections.
For his part, Sharon staged a dramatic show of force Tuesday night, bringing together some 1,500 Likud activists for a New Year’s rally at which he demanded that the party unite behind his leadership. The turnout, which included most of the Likud’s Knesset faction, was a blow to the so-called Likud rebels who had opposed disengagement and continue to press for Sharon’s ouster.
“I know that we went through a difficult period,” Sharon told the crowd, referring to turbulence over the Gaza withdrawal, “but I’m saying we’ll have to get used to having the [party’s Knesset] faction supporting the government’s position and decisions.”
The last-minute summit cancellation came after a series of lower-level meetings failed to produce agreement on a number of steps for the leaders to announce. The main sticking points were Palestinian demands that Israel withdraw from another West Bank city and release Palestinian security prisoners.
Israel has rejected further West Bank withdrawals at the current stage, insisting that any new territorial concessions must be part of the road map peace process. The road map calls for Israeli concessions following a Palestinian crackdown on terrorist groups.
Abbas has insisted that he will end Hamas terrorism by co-opting the organization into Palestinian politics rather than by confronting and dismantling it.
Israel’s senior military brass believes that Abbas has begun showing some muscle in the face of the Hamas challenge, Ha’aretz reported this week. The army is said to be recommending to the Sharon government that it ease some of its negotiating positions in order to strengthen Abbas. Among the measures the army is expected to recommend are the adding of new categories of Palestinian prisoners eligible for release and permitting Palestinian security forces to receive ammunition from Egypt.
Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin is said to be urging Israel to permit Abbas’s forces to receive light arms, as well. Sharon’s aides have rejected that proposal, telling Palestinian negotiators that they should confiscate Hamas weapons.
At the same time, the army sources caution that Abbas may be unable to prevail in a confrontation with Hamas. The P.A. has been powerless to enforce its decree forbidding the public display of guns by anybody other than the members of Palestinian security organizations.
Israel took its own steps against Hamas this week, arresting 117 suspected members of Hamas terrorist cells in three West Bank cities in a dramatic sweep by the Shin Bet security service. The cells are believed responsible for attacks that killed five Israelis in recent months, despite the formal cease-fire adopted by Hamas last winter.
Israel has vowed to keep up pressure on Hamas, partly to weaken it in advance of the January Palestinian elections. The moves have caused alarm among some Palestinians, who said the Israeli crackdown could increase the group’s popularity.
A new Palestinian opinion survey released this week suggested that the opposite might be happening: a drop in support for Hamas and a boost for Fatah. The poll, conducted by Ramallah’s Birzeit University, found that 45.6% would be likely to vote for Fatah; 23.1% said they would vote for Hamas.