This week’s summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed what Sharon did not want to hear: that Abbas has so little power he cannot guarantee any promises he makes.
That analysis by many Israeli observers was buttressed by this exchange at Tuesday’s two-hour meeting, as reported on Israel’s Channel 1:
Abbas: "Help me, I’m weak."
Sharon: "Don’t say that, people might believe it."
Even the Bush administration now knows it.
During her visit to Israel this week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was given a report by her security coordinator, Gen. William Ward, that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said described a crumbling Palestinian Authority, power struggles and infighting at senior levels of Abbas’ Fatah party.
Mordechai Kedar, a senior research assistant at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said although the Palestinian Authority has the mandate to keep order on the street, it has "very little legitimacy from the Palestinian people … because it is corrupted to the teeth."
"Nobody knows what is going on with the money in the authority," Kedar said. "People are put into positions if they are the brothers of someone. The judicial system is paralyzed. Their forces are more like gangs than police. Even if Israel gave them whatever they would like, they lack legitimacy and are afraid of Hamas."
Hamas, a group labeled as terrorists by Israel and the United States, is challenging Abbas and Fatah in upcoming Palestinian legislative elections. The Hamas platform calls for the destruction of Israel. But rather than disarm Hamas and other terrorist groups, a move Abbas fears would cause a civil war, he has tried to bring them into his government.
Although the summit was designed to work out Palestinian-Israeli coordination of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank cities, it turned into a chance for Sharon to vent his rage at Abbas for failing to halt recent Palestinian attacks that killed three Israelis and wounded one.
In one attempted suicide attack this week, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman tried to walk out of the Gaza Strip carrying 22 pounds of explosives in her pants. Israeli electronic sensors detected the bomb, which was removed from the woman and detonated in a controlled explosion.
The woman said she planned to detonate the bomb inside Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where she was headed for treatment of facial burns. She said members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military arm of the Fatah movement, gave her the bomb.
Leonard Weinberg, a fellow at the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center, said it was the first time a hospital had been targeted by terrorists.
"They have attacked buses, restaurants and public streets, but not hospitals," he said. "If they wanted to do something to sabotage peace negotiations, nothing would be more likely to inflame public opinion than setting off a bomb that killed the sick and the maimed."
Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the violence comes amid a truce declared by the Palestinians in February. The truce came out of the last meeting between Sharon and Abbas, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
"Instead of using the truce to disarm the terrorist network, [Abbas] is enabling them to recover," Steinitz said. "And he is doing something that [former Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat never dared to do: invite them into the government."
"We cannot see [Abbas] as a partner for peace," he said. "In certain respects he is worse than Arafat."
Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, said Sharon has little trust in Abbas because of his failure to take action despite Israeli moves to bolster him.
"The Israeli experience with such agreements is that you pay a higher price and the other side does not stick to those agreements," he said. "It’s very close to a zero-sum game. When it is close to a total conflict situation, there is no use to bilateral moves."
Analysts pointed out that Sharon did offer to take additional confidence-building steps when he met with Abbas at his residence in Jerusalem, the first time top Palestinian and Israeli leaders have met in the city. Among them were Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Kalkilya, permitting more Palestinian workers into Israel, and easing restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and goods.
Sharon reportedly told Abbas that those steps would be made only if Palestinian violence ended.Abbas is said to have assured Sharon that he wants to help coordinate the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip slated to begin in mid-August, and he offered to deploy 5,000 security personnel to make sure it is carried out free of terrorist attacks.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the two sides did not agree on whether the security force would be armed.
"If they are armed, to what degree would the U.S. assure that they will prevent attacks [on the withdrawing Israelis] and not work with the other side," he said. "If they are not armed, what good are they?"
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the U.S. must engage the Palestinians and Israelis in trilateral talks because "Israel needs to be assured that its legitimate security threats are addressed."
"The U.S. should be involved because a lot of practical issues need to be resolved and there is very little time left," he said.Weinberg said he believed it is "no coincidence" that terrorism returned just as the Israelis and Palestinians were to sit down to coordinate the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The disengagement is seen by both sides as paving the way to the resumption of peace negotiations.
"The closer the sides are to reaching an agreement, the more likely it is that terrorist organizations will go out of their way to torpedo negotiations by carrying out attacks," he said.
At a press conference in Ramallah after the summit, the Palestinians said no agreements had been reached and there were "no positive answers to the issues we raised."
Among other issues, the Palestinians had wanted the Gaza airport reopened, the release of more Palestinian prisoners, the end of Jewish settlement expansion and the opening of Palestinian offices in Jerusalem.
Despite the pessimistic spin by the Palestinians, Alon Ben-Meir said the two sides would continue to work together.
Ben-Meir, director of the Middle East Project at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan, said maintaining the status quo would be a "disaster for the Palestinians."
"My sources tell me they will continue to cooperate behind the scenes because they don’t have any choice," he said.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer. Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent.