Even as Palestinian terrorist groups rebuffed calls for a cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made conciliatory gestures to moderate Palestinian leaders this week ahead of a Jan. 9 election to choose a successor to Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat.
Sharon said Palestinians living in East Jerusalem would be able to vote in the election, just as they did in their last election in 1996. And just days before Arafat’s death Nov. 11 in a Paris hospital — reportedly from liver disease — the Israeli government released $40 million in frozen taxes to the Palestinian Authority.
Israel, which since the death of Arafat has scaled back its military operations in Gaza, is also considering moving its troops out of major Palestinian cities and taking down roadblocks that would hinder campaigning and voting.
Sharon told Likud officials gathered at his home Tuesday evening that he is also considering coordinating with the Palestinians Israel’s planned May withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements.
Mahmoud Abbas, 69, also known as Abu Mazen, has emerged as the new Palestinian leader. He has already been selected to lead the PLO and has won the endorsement of Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan.
But Abbas apparently is facing stiff opposition among more militant Palestinians. Gunfire erupted Sunday when he visited the mourning tent for Arafat; two security guards were killed and six others wounded. Abbas, who was unharmed, dismissed the possibility that it was an assassination attempt.
Gunmen also shouted slogans calling Abbas, a moderate who has spoken out against violence, an agent of the United States.
The Sharon government was criticized by some last year for not making enough conciliatory moves last year to strengthen Abbas’ hand during his brief tenure as Palestinian prime minister.
“The hope is that between now and the election there will be no terrorism, and that after the election Abu Mazen or the new Palestinian leadership will be in a position to deal with the terrorist groups and begin dismantling them,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
Abbas met several times this week with the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in an effort to convince them to halt all terrorist actions in advance of the election. One participant in the talks, Ziad Abu Amr, was quoted as saying that Abbas told them “the elections need security, stability and quiet. There is no possibility to conduct elections while we are in a situation of war and conflict.”
But Hamas leaders rejected the truce and Islamic Jihad leader Sheik Nafez Azzam said it was “too early” to consider a cease-fire because its “top priority is to confront the [Israeli] occupation and its aggression.”
Steinberg argued that “there is not much more than can be expected at this stage” because there is no Palestinian leader strong enough to disarm the terrorist groups now.
Abbas appears to be the frontrunner in the election. Hamas is not fielding a candidate, having rejected the Oslo Accords of 1993 that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
But a spokesman for the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade said Marwan Barghouti is their candidate. Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah leader convicted in an Israeli court of organizing terrorist attacks against Israelis, was sentenced in June to five life terms in prison.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to meet with Abbas when he confers with Israeli and Palestinian officials Sunday and Monday in Israel and the West Bank in an effort to move the peace process forward. But since Powell announced his resignation this week, little is expected from the trip.
Analysts said there is little likelihood of a major U.S. push for its long-dormant Mideast “road map” — at least not now.
“I just don’t see the interest,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and now head of the Middle East Institute.
Walker cited last week’s White House visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who came to town to press for greater U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but left with only “broad commitments” by the administration.
At a joint press conference, “the president danced around things; he didn’t really commit himself to anything,” Walker said. “I’m not sure he has a great deal of interest in the subject right now.”
Other foreign policy crises, starting with Iraq, continue to dominate the administration’s agenda, Walker said. And domestic policy is a factor, as well.
“The president doesn’t want to alienate any members of Congress by getting into conflict on Israel at a time when their votes will be critical on tax reform, Social Security and judicial appointments,” he said. “Basically, I think he wants to stay out of it.”
Aaron David Miller, the former Mideast negotiator, said the administration is still at the point of judging whether additional involvement would be productive. And it has yet to decide if it will launch a new push for the road map.
“If the administration chooses to engage, it will be because they believe there is a real opportunity where none existed in the past four years, and that engagement will serve its broader interests,” Miller said. “We won’t do this as a favor to Tony Blair, or for sentimental reasons; it’s just too hard.”
Some analysts disagreed, saying the administration’s renewed commitment to the road map was more than cosmetic.
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, predicted “the biggest crisis in U.S.-Israel relations in many years” if the emerging Palestinian leadership “gets their act together and stops the violence.”
That, he said, would lead the U.S. administration to “pull out the road map, adjust its timetable and start pushing hard.”
Israelis were cautious about Palestinian elections.
Michael Nudelman, a Knesset member from the National Union Party, said he supported doing the utmost to allow democratic Palestinian elections but questioned whether there won’t be a Palestinian civil war before Election Day.
“You saw how orderly the funeral of Arafat was,” he said, referring to the inability of Palestinian authorities to maintain order. “We need to figure out how to build a security network on the day of the elections. There is a danger.
“How can you hold elections in a time of anarchy?” Nudelman asked.
Shaul Yahalom, a Knesset member from the National Religious Party, said Israel should give the Palestinians all the help they need to carry out the election “on the condition that the vote is not under fire and is democratic.”
“If the [Israeli troop] withdrawal is for 24 hours to allow the elections, there’s no problem,” Yahalom said. “The last thing we need is to sit in the cities.”
During his trip, Powell is expected to explore ways to revitalize the Palestinian economy. In September, the United Nations said three out of four Palestinians were living in poverty, and this week an Israeli economist said four years of violence had cost Israel $12 billion and the Palestinians $4.5 billion.
Danny Singerman, chief economist at Business Data Israel, a research firm, said also that the violence had cut the Palestinian gross domestic product by about 30 percent and Israel’s by about 10 percent.
Shlomo Eplboim, founder and chairman of the Blue and White Fund, one of the first U.S. mutual funds to invest exclusively in Israeli companies, pointed out that before the outbreak of Palestinian violence, there had been about 5 billion transactions between Israel and the Palestinian territories that added almost 4 percent to Israel’s GDP.
But he pointed out that Israel’s economy has begun to rebound since Israel began erecting a security barrier last year that has greatly reduced the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks inside its borders. Eplboim said that although the rate of economic growth was a negative of nearly 3 percent in 2002, it grew by 1.3 percent last year and is expected to grow another 4 percent this year.
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick and Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.