The Tel Aviv beachfront bombing that killed three Israelis and injured 50 early Wednesday (just five hours after the Palestinian parliament confirmed Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister and approved his cabinet) reinforced the view of many Israeli analysts that little has changed despite earlier optimism.
"It’s incredibly funny how people are capable of self-deception, how they can distort realities to suit political hopes and promises," said Uzi Arad, former director of intelligence in the Mossad, Israel’s spy service.
Although the international community has expressed optimism that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will take office and immediately set about to destroy the Palestinian terrorist network, Arad said he finds no evidence to support that belief.
"Over the last couple of years he has made a number of policy statements, all of them suggesting a hard-line pragmatism in pursuit of the same objectives as [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat," Arad said. "And on a number of points you see a position that is even more problematic than Arafat’s."
For instance, Arad said, in a 1993 letter to Israeli leaders, Arafat committed himself to ending force and resolving all outstanding issues at the negotiating table. He then undertook police action against terrorist organizations and declared that the Palestinian Authority was committed to arresting and destroying the terrorist infrastructure.
"Abu Mazen did not say that," said Arad, director of the Institute of Policy and Strategic Study at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. "He only calls for a cessation, a stoppage of violence not because he considers such means illegitimate but because itís not advantageous to use force at this time. Implicit in such a position is the corollary argument that where it is advantageous, it is perfectly alright."
Mazen, however, insisted that he wanted to appoint Muhammed Dahlan as his security chief because of Dahlan’s belief that he can crack down on the terrorist infrastructure. But Arad said he hasn’t seen "any sort of evidence to that effect. I hope I will be proved wrong."
Israel’s Military Intelligence personnel were quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as believing that Abbas has no intention of destroying the terrorist infrastructure.
"According to what we know now, Abu Mazen plans to speak with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, and not clash with them," a senior military source was quoted as telling the paper.
In remarks Tuesday to the Palestinian Legislative Council before the group confirmed his appointment, Abbas said: "We do not ignore the sufferings of the Jews throughout history. And in exchange, we hope the Israelis will not turn their backs on the sufferings of the Palestinians."
He also maintained that said "that terror and its various forms does not help our just cause, but rather destroys it, and will not bring the peace we want." And he pledged to disarm militants.
"One of our objectives that we won’t hesitate to carry out is to put an end to the signs of chaos and arms bearing that constitute a threat to the safety of the citizens," Abbas said. "There is no room for arms, aside from official weapons for the security of the public, and there is no room for decision-making centers, aside from the legal one. This nation has one authority and one government."
The latter comments were seen aimed at Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which quickly issued statements saying they would not disarm and would continue using violence to end the Israeli "occupation."
Questions On Abbas’ Past
At 1 a.m. Wednesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a bar near the American Embassy in Tel Aviv after being stopped from entering by a security guard. Three Israelis were killed and the guard was among 50 others who were injured. Just a week ago, another suicide bomber blew himself up and killed a security guard who stopped him from entering a train station near Tel Aviv.
Several Palestinian groups rushed to take responsibility for Wednesdayís attack. A caller to one news agency said the attack was carried out by the Al Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades in conjunction with Hamas. The brigades is a militant wing of the Fatah organization Abbas founded with Arafat in 1965.
Abbas "strongly" condemned the attack in a brief comment to reporters on his way to being sworn into office Wednesday morning.
But Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Israel Law Center, a legal rights organization, questioned whether the U.S. should be dealing with Abbas in view of President George W. Bushís comments last summer that the U.S. would not do business with Palestinians suspected of terrorism.
In a letter to Bush Tuesday, Darshan-Leitner said her groupís research connects Abbas with the terrorist attack that killed 10 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, as well as others committed by the PLO. She said one of the athletes, David Berger, was an American citizen and asked Bush to investigate Abbas’ role in the attack and to bring those responsible for Berger’s murder to justice.
Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum who has known Abbas for 20 years, said that although it is "legitimate" to know about Abbas’ past, one must also look at "what he is doing and where he wants to go. If you look at the speech he gave [to the parliament] and don’t recognize that there was something completely different than had been said before by Palestinian leaders, you are missing the point. … I’m surprised at how much he was willing to say right from the start. He talked of collecting weapons and of one Palestinian Authority: all the hard issues from a Palestinian point of view."
Asked about Abbas’ role in previous terror attacks, Cohen brushed it aside.
"People are looking for a Palestinian who is not a Palestinian," he said. "Do you have an Israeli leader who has no blood on his hands?"
Regarding the "road map," a three-stage international peace plan released Wednesday that calls for the creation of a Palestinian state with permanent borders at the end of 2005, Cohen said it is "significant" that neither the American Jewish leadership nor the State of Israel are challenging the creation of a Palestinian state.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to discuss the road map when he visits Israel later in the month. At that time, he is expected to invite Abbas to the White House. Although Arafat was a frequent guest to the Clinton White House, he has never been invited by Bush, who has joined Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in refusing to deal with him because of corruption and his refusal to stop terrorist attacks.
Sharon had said last month that he was prepared to meet with Abbas even before the road map was released and to take other steps to demonstrate his support for him, including unfreezing about $450 million in Palestinian taxes Israel collected, releasing some Palestinian prisoners and granting more permits for Palestinians to work inside Israel.
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, said those promises were made at a time when it was believed Abbas would be firmly in control of the Palestinian Authority and that Arafat would be shoved aside, confined to a more ceremonial role. But as evidenced by the fact that the Palestinian parliament met at Arafat’s Ramallah compound and that Abbas and his cabinet were sworn in there (as well as by statements by Arafat that he was the duly elected leader of the Palestinian people and would not be sidelined) conditions have changed.
"Arafat has made a tremendous comeback and Powell will not come until Arafat is in the background," Steinberg said. "And there also will be no Israeli gestures because they would be seen as being given to Arafat. So we have a slightly different ballgame now."
As a result, Steinberg said he believes the road map will join "other peace plans on the shelf that did not go anywhere."
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said movement on the road map will not start until the Palestinians drop their demand for a right-of-return of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948.
"We will not move forward without them abolishing it because if Israel is expected to agree a priori to Palestinian sovereignty, we cannot agree to it as long as the right-of-return is on the books."
Nabil Shaath, the new Palestinian foreign minister, told The Jewish Week last week that the right of return was included in the new Palestinian Constitution because it is something Palestinians would like to strive to achieve. But he said it is entirely negotiable. Shoval, however, insisted that it is a non-negotiable demand of Israel that it be dropped.
And he said that unless the new Palestinian government demonstrates that it is "able and willing to stop the violence, break up the terrorist organizations and hand over illegal arms, the process will not move forward."
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said all eyes now must be on Arafat to see if he is going to "sabotage the best chance for peace in a long time by not allowing Abbas to crack down" on terrorists.
"The Europeans and Arabs have to say publicly what they have said privately: that they have lost confidence in Arafatís leadership and that for the sake of the Palestinian cause he must stand aside and not block Abu Mazen’s efforts to impose security," Makovsky said.
He noted that an Israeli newspaper recently carried the text of a private meeting Abbas had two years ago with other Palestinian leaders in which he blamed Palestinian rejectionists for Palestinians being thrown out of Jordan and Lebanon and said he does not want to see that happen "in our own homeland."
"In his speech to the PLC he said that terrorism is morally and religiously against our values and that it destroys our chances for peace," Makovsky said. "Arafat in a million years would never have said that."
But Mordechai Kedar, who for 25 years served in IDF Military Intelligence, said one is only "dreaming about [Abbas] fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad because whoever in the Palestinian Authority does that will be considered a collaborator with Israel: and there is nothing worse."
Asked about Abbas’ pledge to disarm terrorists, Kedar, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said simply: "I would like to see the first rifle he takes from the first Hamas man. What he would like is to get a ceasefire for a year. [Wednesdayís] suicide bombing was a message: ‘Don’t even think about disarming us.’ This is how Palestinians send messages to each other."
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said the Palestinian politics of the last week "do not leave room for optimism. Arafat is still in control. While there was talk of kicking him upstairs, he still has clear lines of authority. In fact, it could be argued that he will have many more security services under his reign of power than Abu Mazen."