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Israeli Public Is Upbeat, But Leaders Fear the Worst

TEL AVIV — Three years after the Passover Eve bombing at Netanya’s Park Hotel, arguably the low point in Israel’s war against Palestinian terrorism, the Israeli people are in a soaring mood. Everyone, that is, except country’s leaders.

As far as the pubic is concerned, times are better than they have been in years. This year’s Passover holiday was the quietest since 2000. The streets were filled with children fearlessly enjoying their weeklong break. Ben-Gurion Airport was packed with vacationers hopping overseas, bolstered by the national upswing, both emotional and economic.

The traditional preholiday interviews with military leaders, in contrast, were filled with foreboding, much of it centering on the performance of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. “It is not at all clear that Abu Mazen will manage to remain in power after the disengagement,” military intelligence chief Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash said in a much-quoted interview with Yediot Aharonot, published April 29.

Ze’evi-Farkash was echoing a prevalent sentiment among the army’s top brass: Another round of violence may be in the offing, and it could be even bloodier than the previous one.

Alarming signs from the field followed Ze’evi-Farkash’s words. This past Monday, a 21-year-old sergeant in the elite Paratroop Brigade reconnaissance unit was killed in a firefight with Islamic Jihad terrorists near Tulkarem. Intelligence officials say that while the home front seems quiet, it is only because of the army’s vigilance; terrorists continue to plan incidents on a daily basis.

Israel’s top leaders, both political and military, are gradually uniting around the view that Abbas, who replaced Yasser Arafat in January, is either unable or unwilling to face down militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the manner required under the road map peace plan.

Abbas insists he can halt terrorism by co-opting the militant groups into the Palestinian political system. Israelis claim that allowing the militants to join the political process without first disarming will merely facilitate future terrorist activities. “It is inconceivable for an armed party to participate in the democratic process,” Prime Minister Sharon said this week.

In private, Israelis fear that Hamas, having garnered considerable popularity during the four years of fighting, could emerge as the largest political force in Palestinian life if it is permitted to join the political process. If Hamas has a strong showing in this summer’s Palestinian legislative elections, it could be in a position to dictate future moves — following a democratic process with which even the Bush administration would be hard pressed to find fault.

However, Israel faces considerable pressure from outside, including the Bush administration, to let Abbas find his way. Newly appointed Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank until recently, told Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom during a visit to the region this week that he believed the Palestinians were making “positive changes.”

The debate has become increasingly sharp in recent days. Sharon lambasted Abbas openly during a meeting this week with two visiting American senators, Bill Frist and Joseph Lieberman, saying that “instead of working to disarm the terror organizations, he is working to strengthen them. He is not willing to fight them and is not willing to dismantle their infrastructure.”

Abbas fired back the next day, reiterating in a Tuesday meeting at his office in Ramallah that he would not face down the militants. “Israelis want Palestinian blood to be spilled, and we don’t accept that,” he said, according to WAFA, the Palestinian News Agency. “This is a red line. We run our security in our own way, for our people’s protection.”

He also said that Palestinians never would accept anything less than the 1967 borders in any future settlement with Israel.

Palestinians claim they have to rebuild their security forces from the ground up, after they were shattered by Israel during four-and-a half years of fighting. On Tuesday the Palestinian Interior Ministry reported halting a planned rocket attack on settlers in Gaza and arresting two Hamas militants following a gunfight, the first between Palestinian troops and militants since Abbas ordered an “iron fist” to maintain the cease-fire with Israel. They were released hours later, following Hamas protests and threats of reprisals. This prompted a new round of criticism from Sharon’s aides.

Some Israeli critics, including Labor politicians within Sharon’s own coalition, charge that the army and Sharon himself created the very danger they now warn against. The Israeli military, they say, deliberately shredded the security arms of the P.A. during the fighting, without differentiating between those that dealt in terror and those that didn’t. Now that the authority is helpless — even by optimistic accounts, it will take Abbas months to rebuild his security services, a senior military source told the Forward — the army brass is issuing a constant stream of warnings about Abbas’s failure to crack down on the terrorists.

Meanwhile the military is concerned with far more immediate threats. Top officers are now warning against many of the same things that opponents of the disengagement plan warn against. They say that terrorists would smuggle long-range rockets, as well as anti-aircraft missiles, into the territories Israel evacuates. They warn that outside forces, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Damascus-based leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would have an easier time financing terror after the Israeli security forces loosen their grip and lose many of their intelligence sources. All this, they say, threatens both Israel and Abbas’s survival.

Paradoxically, the Palestinian leader’s survival may depend in large part on Israel’s willingness to proceed with confidence-building measures that Israel is reluctant to undertake, fearing that the measures will backfire. Washington is pressing Israel to let Palestinian police carry their weapons freely, viewing an armed police force as essential to establishing Abbas’s authority. Israel has refused so far, seeing further distribution of guns as a security threat.

While the argument rages, Abbas is said by Israeli officials to be getting weaker almost by the hour, to the dismay of everybody except the terrorists.


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