- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

TEL AVIV — A Palestinian suicide bomber wounded 30 bystanders at a sandwich stand in Tel Aviv yesterday, presenting acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the latest in a series of prickly challenges as he tries to prove himself a worthy successor to the ailing Ariel Sharon.

Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the attack, the first such bombing since Mr. Sharon was put in a coma after a massive stroke two weeks ago.

The relatively limited toll — one person was critically wounded — eases the pressure for a harsh Israeli response but raises fears that militants will try to unsettle the region during Palestinian parliamentary elections next week and Israeli balloting in March.

Mr. Olmert, who has been in office two weeks, has not had the leisure of a honeymoon period. Every move he makes has become fodder for Israel’s hypercritical news media and political system.

In the past week, he has come under fire from his old Likud Party colleagues for permitting Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote in the Wednesday elections. Jewish settlers also criticized his order to police to clear out rock-throwing Israeli demonstrators trying to prevent the removal of Jewish squatters from Palestinian shops in the West Bank city of Hebron.

But as Israelis mourn the loss of Mr. Sharon’s leadership, decisive moves by Mr. Olmert are likely to help enhance his credentials as a proactive leader who isn’t afraid of controversy.

“He took into consideration that those decisions might help him in the general elections,” said Gad Yaacobi, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. “As long as he will be seen by the Israeli public as a decisive decision maker, one who is able to see through his decision as Sharon did in the Gaza disengagement, the Israeli people will reward him with their support.”

Israeli newspapers reported that Mr. Olmert has ordered Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to prepare to dismantle about two dozen illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, virtually inviting a clash with Jewish settlers.

Regarding stone-throwing youths in Hebron, Mr. Olmert has said: “Until now we have not used the necessary force to deal with this kind of violence.” He added that undermining the rule of law has become “a way of life” for some settlers.

Settler leaders warned that use of force by the government would spark widespread turmoil among the West Bank settlers.

The Tel Aviv bombing left the walls of a tiny restaurant near the city’s central bus station splattered with blood.

Though a wave of Hamas bus bombings in 1996 helped Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu surge past Labor’s Shimon Peres in the final weeks of an election, observers doubted such a scenario would recur, given Israel’s tightened control over the West Bank.

The Palestinian elections are likely to present Mr. Olmert with a more difficult challenge. Earlier this week, he got his Cabinet to approve voting in East Jerusalem — except for activity by Hamas — carrying through a decision that Mr. Sharon reportedly had signaled to the United States before his stroke.

But if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is forced to let Hamas participate in the next Palestinian government, it will be nearly impossible for Israel to pursue negotiations and might force Mr. Olmert to more explicitly lay out unilateral measures to separate Israelis from the Palestinians. That is something Mr. Sharon never did.

“If the Hamas does get into government, then we’ll be going to the pre-Abbas concept of disengagement,” said Shmuel Bar, a Middle East specialist at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

“We build a good fence, we disengage from where we want to disengage. We’re here, you’re there, and you can cook in your own stew.”

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