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Attack on Hamas Head Spurs Terror, Threatens Abu Mazen

JERUSALEM — The failed assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi is likely to weaken the already precarious position of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and to herald a new wave of terrorist attacks against Israelis.

This was the assessment of most Israeli analysts even before the Hamas-backed suicide bombing in Jerusalem Wednesday and Israel’s retaliatory air raid in Gaza.

Prime Minister Sharon was roundly criticized at home and abroad for Tuesday’s unsuccessful helicopter assault on Rantisi, who is considered to be second only to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in the Hamas hierarchy. The attack was widely seen as a deliberate attempt to derail the fledgling “road map” to Middle East peace.

The Bush administration also joined in rebuking Israel, with President Bush himself saying he was “deeply troubled” by the assassination attempt. Privately, however, some American sources said the administration’s public statements should be taken at less than face value. The administration itself, they said, is frustrated at Hamas attempts to undermine the legitimacy of Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and is expressing some private sympathy with the Israeli attack.

The attack also brought to an abrupt end the short-lived honeymoon between Sharon and the Israeli left, which had hailed the prime minister for his “courageous” acceptance of the American-sponsored road map, as well as his forceful statements against “occupation” and in favor of an independent Palestinian state. Leftist leader Yossi Beilin characterized Sharon as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” figure who promotes the peace process while simultaneously trying to sabotage it.

Although Israeli military sources characterized Rantisi as an “archterrorist” directly responsible for Sunday’s attack in Gaza, in which four Israeli reserve soldiers were killed, some Israeli analysts believe the timing of the foiled attempt on Rantisi’s life was aimed at offsetting and counterbalancing growing criticism of Sharon from within his Likud party and groups to the right. Sharon’s decision to go ahead with the evacuation of 14 so-called “unauthorized outposts” in the territories had been widely criticized by right-wing and settler leaders as a “capitulation to terrorism,” and the attempt on Rantisi, despite its failure, was widely applauded on the right.

Earlier in the week, Sharon had faced vocal discontent within the Likud, when a poorly-attended party convention in Jerusalem was disrupted by hundreds of enraged hecklers, screaming and blowing plastic whistles during Sharon’s keynote speech. The prime minister, stoically facing his critics, pledged to fight terrorism but also vowed to maintain the agreements he reached in Aqaba. Although he failed to placate his critics, the attempt on Rantisi’s life is likely to stifle Likud objections to Sharon’s policies for several weeks to come.

But while the attack on Rantisi may have bolstered Sharon’s own political position at home, the assassination attempt is more than likely to further delegitimize the leadership of Abu Mazen. Even before the attack took place, both Israeli and American officials were expressing concern that Abu Mazen is “too weak,” personally and institutionally, to carry out the changes and reforms necessary to get the road map process underway.

Although both Sharon and Bush are rooting for his success, officials around the two are increasingly concerned that Abu Mazen’s weakness may soon dissolve the diplomatic momentum created in last week’s peace summit in Aqaba. Abu Mazen is proving ineffective in carving out a power base independent of Yasser Arafat, and is widely seen as unequal to the challenge posed to his authority by Hamas, Islamic Jihad or even his own Fatah group.

Abu Mazen’s credibility in the eyes of the Palestinian public sustained a serious blow in the wake of his speech at Aqaba, which sharply condemned the “militarized intifada” carried out by the Palestinians since September 2000. Although the speech was widely lauded in the West, intelligence officials point to it as a symptom of Abu Mazen’s inability to ward off pressures, whether internal or external. Some are already pointing to the appointment of Abu Mazen as a “strategic error” that could unravel the entire peacemaking effort.

Already looking down the road for a possible alternative to Abu Mazen, the officials point to his new security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, as a possible candidate to fill the vacuum, while others believe that imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is the only Palestinian leader strong enough to stand up to Arafat and to quell the resistance of the militant groups.

In this context, some Israeli officials believe that Arafat’s continued negative meddling in the day-to-day management of Palestinian affairs, including what Israel describes as his repeated efforts to promote terrorism, may soon lead to a situation in which the Bush administration would “turn a blind eye” to an Israeli effort to expel Arafat from the territories. A senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied such speculation but did not rule out the possibility that an exasperated Bush might ultimately allow Israel to carry out a major search-and-destroy mission in Gaza in an effort to capture Hamas leaders and to destroy the organization’s terrorist infrastructure. The official’s warning, made before the failed attempt on Rantisi’s life, seemed to indicate that such a move by Israel might be received with quiet American understanding, despite the official public denunciations issued by the State Department and the White House.

Officials in Washington and Jerusalem say they are convinced that President Bush will not allow the Hamas and other opponents of the road map to derail the process in which he is now personally involved. Participants in last week’s Aqaba summit were impressed by the president’s new-found energy and resolve in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and are now convinced that Bush intends to stay the course and to remain engaged, at least until the end of the year, when the presidential election campaign begins in earnest.

Several officials who participated in the Aqaba meetings between Bush and Sharon said that despite the close relationship forged between the two leaders in the past two years, Sharon was actually taken aback by Bush’s forcefulness and determination to extract concessions. Repeatedly brushing aside Sharon’s demands of the Palestinians, the president retorted: “We all know what the Palestinians need to do, but now we’re focusing on what your commitments are.”

Looking at himself in the mirror several times, the president told Sharon, “I am a Type-A personality.” Although participants said that it was not clear whether Sharon knew exactly what the president was referring to, the general message was crystal-clear, and some opined that Sharon “definitely appeared nervous.”

Wary of upsetting the president, Sharon thus decided to go ahead with the removal of the so-called “unauthorized outposts,” despite intense pressures to the contrary from the settler movements and despite warnings by political advisers that he would be seen as “caving in to terrorism.” Sharon ordered the evacuation of 14 outposts, four of which are populated, after having reached an understanding with the president that further evacuations would take place only after the Palestinians “had done something” against the terrorists.

Sharon thus continued playing both sides of the fence, keeping his promises to the Americans but ordering the assassination of Rantisi, despite the potential damage to the peace process. Israeli columnists and pundits had already heralded, perhaps prematurely, Sharon’s “historic decision” to pursue peace with the Palestinians, but the attempt on Rantisi’s life instilled new doubts about his true intentions. The two-year-old national guessing game about Sharon’s “true identity” thus continued unabated.

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