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Since Yasser Arafat's death, difficult road ahead for Mideast peace

JERUSALEM—It seemed for a while that Yasser Arafat was the only obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Israelis and Palestinians were moving further and faster than almost anyone thought possible to dial back their conflict in the little more than 100 days since the long-time Palestinian leader died Nov. 11.

The shock of Friday night's terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv that killed four Israelis served to underscore just how far peace had progressed, while also illustrating the huge obstacles that remain.

The Damascus leadership of the Islamic Jihad militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, even as representatives of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip denied responsibility.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Saturday blamed Syria for the bombing, while Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas blamed an unnamed "third party." Mofaz also suspended plans to hand back five West Bank cities to Palestinian control.

Almost daily, until Friday, there was an announcement of cheering news from the conflict-prone Holy Land, beginning with the Feb. 8 parallel cease-fires announced by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas.

Last week, Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners, the most in nine years, while Abbas helped reformers oust several long-time Arafat apparatchiks when he intervened in a Palestinian Cabinet dispute.

"For the first time for a long time now, we have this feeling of optimism," said Yariv Oppenheimer, director of the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now.

"It's a good news story," with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders showing a desire "to really make use of this moment," said William Quandt, who was involved in the negotiations leading to the 1978 Camp David accords as an aide to President Jimmy Carter.

The rapprochement offers the best chance to date to end the current 4{-year-old Palestinian uprising known as the "intifada," which has claimed 5,000 lives—most of them Palestinian—and defied peace-making efforts by battalions of diplomats and envoys.

Officials of Middle East governments and long-time observers expect the momentum to continue in the immediate months ahead, although whether that happens may now depend on how vigorously Abbas cracks down on militants and pursues the perpetrators of Friday night's bombing. In the end, he may lack the authority for the kind of action Israel is demanding.

Sharon is forging ahead with plans to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, a decision that has torn Israeli society and that the 77-year-old Sharon has acknowledged is the most painful thing he's ever done.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has staked his position on ending violence as a political tool. He deployed Palestinian security forces to Gaza after militants launched homemade rockets against Israelis and has ordered the destruction of tunnels used to smuggle arms from neighboring Egypt.

Abbas has strong backing from the United States and other international partners for his efforts to build democratic Palestinian institutions.

Beyond that, however, the road to a final peace settlement is fraught with difficulty.

Israeli and Palestinian visions of a final deal remain deeply divided over issues such as Jerusalem's status, the return of Palestinian refugees, where to draw a border, and what to do with Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Sharon developed the plan to withdraw from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank as a unilateral stroke, when Israel felt it had no negotiating partner in Arafat and his ultimate goal may be to cede this ground in order to consolidate other claims on the West Bank that Palestinians would be unlikely to accept.

While the Israeli leader now has agreed to coordinate the withdrawal with Abbas, Sharon has no history of favoring negotiated peace deals as Palestinians demand.

"The central strategic impulse that motivates Sharon—namely to preserve for Israel the ability to act unilaterally" and to hold off direct negotiations with Palestinians for as long as possible "seems to remain the dominant factor of the political scene," said Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the same time, critics say, Israel has continued solidifying its hold over Jerusalem and has not stopped Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank despite calls from President Bush, as recently as the last week, to do so.

That could fatally undercut Abbas' already fragile position.

Unless Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put muscle behind their rhetoric "he will not be there, he will go down the drain again," Siegman said. He referred to Abbas' brief stint in 2003 as prime minister under Arafat when, many observers argue, the United States did not give Abbas sufficient support and he resigned.

Talal Okal, a columnist for the Palestinian daily newspaper Al Ayyam, says that Israel simply has to offer more concessions. Otherwise, "Even people who elected Abu Mazen will not be convinced anymore" by his strategy for achieving Palestinian statehood, Okal said.

Bush and Rice have refused so far to intervene directly between Israel and the Palestinians, preferring to encourage their moves from the sidelines and mustering international backing for Abbas' reform plans.

Rice will attend an international conference in London on Tuesday aimed at providing support to Abbas. She will urge the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to cough up $400 million in financial assistance that they promised the Palestinians, said a State Department official, who requested anonymity.

Israelis say they believe that Abbas is sincere in his desire to end violence, their precondition for progress.

But they question whether he will be able to hold the line against militants, many of whom have backing from Iran and Syria. And if violence continues, no Israeli leader would enjoy the political support to do a deal with Palestinians.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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