- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday gave the Israeli military a free hand to respond to rocket and mortar fire targeting Israeli communities as long as the new Palestinian government does nothing to halt the attacks.

Acting on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ first full day in office, a top body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) called for a halt to the attacks, but the appeal failed to satisfy Mr. Sharon.

“Despite the change in the Palestinian leadership, we note that those at the top have not begun any action whatsoever to halt the terrorism,” Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet at a regular weekly meeting. “This situation cannot continue.”

The political honeymoon between Israel and Mr. Abbas, who was sworn in Saturday, appears to have ended before it began. Many Israelis already are comparing Mr. Abbas to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died two months ago in a Paris hospital.

Even dovish members of Mr. Sharon’s new Cabinet sounded pessimistic about Mr. Abbas. Haim Ramon, a minister from the Labor Party, maintained that the new Palestinian leader had the ability to operate against militants in the Gaza Strip, but questioned his will.

“If they won’t act, then we will return to the days of Arafat,” he said. “That is the test, and he won’t get even one second of grace.”

The peace appeal from the PLO’s central committee, led by Mr. Abbas, was its clearest call yet for an end to the Palestinian militarized uprising, which has lasted four years. But a wave of violence during the weekend raised doubts about whether the policy could be enforced.

An early test is likely this week when Mr. Abbas travels to the Gaza Strip to try to persuade the militant movement Hamas to halt its attacks against Israel.

Palestinian officials criticized Israel for making unreasonable demands of Mr. Abbas, but political analyst Said Zeedani said the new leader needs to stand up to militants who threaten the stability of his administration.

“It’s up to Abu Mazen to assemble the security chiefs and give them instructions about what’s to be done,” Mr. Zeedani said, using Mr. Abbas’ popular nickname.

“These militants don’t want to give him the breathing space he needs. Hamas wants to continue the same pattern of activity. It’s incumbent upon him to intervene, and try to steer a different course.”

Palestinian militants killed six Israelis on Thursday in an attack on a crossing point where commercial goods are transported in and out of the Gaza Strip. Several people were injured during the weekend in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

Israel’s army said it had injured 19 Palestinian militants since Friday. The Web site of the newspaper Ha’aretz reported that two Palestinian civilians were killed yesterday in Khan Younis. A military source said soldiers fired at a suspicious person who was feared to be digging a hole for a roadside bomb.

Meanwhile, senior Israeli diplomat Ron Prosor traveled to Cairo to explain to Egyptian officials Mr. Sharon’s decision on Friday to suspend contacts with the Palestinians. The head of Egypt’s intelligence service, Omar Suleiman, said Israel must give Mr. Abbas more time to move against militants.

The recent violence has disappointed many Israelis, but others think the optimism that followed Mr. Abbas’ election a week ago was exaggerated.

“Anybody who is surprised was looking at the situation in a naive way. Arafat’s legacy of violence is extremely strong. It will be a long process” to undo, said Gerald Steinberg, a military expert at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Confronting Palestinian militants “will be a difficult struggle. The question isn’t ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet?’ It’s whether it will happen at all,” he said.

But Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel said the window of opportunity for rapprochement was small.

“Israel doesn’t have enough time to see if [Mr. Abbas] succeeds,” he wrote. “The events have started the countdown … to a large operation in Gaza.”

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