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'Road Map' Will Test 2 Premiers' Leadership

Israel's Sharon has more support than the Palestinian Abbas, but the next steps toward peace will be politically difficult for both.

July 06, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The prime minister of Israel and his Palestinian counterpart face stiff, potentially crippling opposition in the weeks to come as they take their U.S.-guided efforts to end their blood-soaked conflict into the next phase.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian, is in a particularly precarious position, under pressure on multiple fronts: from an unhappy public that does not give him a large following; from the Americans and Israelis demanding he perform; and from the man he displaced -- on a formal level -- Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Israel's Ariel Sharon, by contrast, stands on firmer ground. He has wide public support that will discourage the far right from challenging him immediately.

Both men have emerged relatively unscathed in the early days of a process that has many enemies. Abbas was heckled briefly when he toured a wrecked part of the Gaza Strip late last week. Sharon easily quieted members of his Cabinet who tried to attack him.

Under the U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the "road map," Israel and the Palestinians have taken modest steps to end the hostilities that began 33 months ago. Last week, Israel pulled some forces out of northern Gaza and returned the streets of Bethlehem to the Palestinian police. Meanwhile, the Palestinians secured a cease-fire from radical armed factions and said they had arrested a couple of people trying to assault Israelis.

The next steps toward long-term peace -- such as the release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel, dissolution of radical Palestinian groups and dismantling of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- are far more controversial and difficult.

Abbas' survival will depend on his ability to deliver, not only to the Americans and Israelis but also to his beleaguered people, who have seen their economy, homes and lives destroyed by Israeli military raids and closures since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000.

"In three months' time, if [Abbas] doesn't show real progress, if people don't feel things moving, he will be in trouble," Ziad abu Ziad, a prominent Palestinian legislator, said in an interview.

"You need to generate public support, to support new trends in Palestinian leadership. It's in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians: You have to marginalize the radicals and extremists."

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, held up well to a grilling from the Palestinian Legislative Council -- the equivalent of a parliament -- during an appearance last week to explain the road map. Whereas Arafat would never have accepted challenges or scrutiny, Abbas took legislators' questions and criticisms and responded point by point.

He also cautioned against high expectations, pleading, essentially, for patience. Taking Palestinians back to where they were on the eve of the intifada is the best to hope for at this stage, he said.

"Let's not fool ourselves," he said. "We can do what we can do, but we cannot do everything."

Abbas is also under pressure from the Israelis and Americans to disarm and eliminate militant factions, such as the radical Hamas movement, that are very popular among Palestinians and responsible for most of the suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

But he and other Palestinians warn such a crackdown would lead to a civil war. Attempts by the Palestinian police in earlier years to stop the militants have ended in fratricidal bloodshed, and a clash was reported late Friday when police swept through a Gaza refugee camp in search of gunmen who had fired rockets at a nearby Jewish settlement in violation of the new truce.

Sharon, meanwhile, will not face major threats to the survival of his government until he confronts requirements that he evacuate numerous Jewish settlements in the West Bank, analysts here say.

Settlers form the backbone of his traditional constituency, and Sharon personally believes strongly in the "settlement enterprise," which places scores of Jewish communities throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip to chop up land claimed by Palestinians as their future state.

His security comes in part from his tough reputation, which makes him popular with Israeli voters who trust him not to agree to any compromise that would harm the Jewish state's long-term interests.

"Until now, Sharon is the democratic King of Israel," said Israeli political analyst Hanan Kristal. "The public believes in Sharon, they trust Sharon, they look on him as magic."

This makes rival politicians within his government who would normally be sharpening their knives reluctant to take him on, Kristal said. That faction is led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime competitor to Sharon who is a fellow member of the right-wing Likud Party.

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