Legacy of mistrust between Israelis, Palestinians lingers

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - Tzahi Hanegbi, a hard-line member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet, did not mince words.

"Abu Mazen is emerging more or less as a second Arafat," Hanegbi said in a radio interview, using the nom de guerre of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "The only difference is that he wears a suit instead of a uniform, he is clean-shaven instead of wearing a stubbly beard, but in practice we see zero readiness on his part to confront the terrorist organizations."


The comments were made last Sunday, after Israel suspended ties with Abbas following a Jan. 13 attack by militants at a border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel that killed six Israelis.

Tensions have eased since then. Israel renewed security contacts with the Palestinian Authority after Abbas ordered a deployment of his forces to stop rocket and mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and border communities in Israel. About 3,000 Palestinian police took up positions Friday in the northern Gaza Strip, and more were expected to be deployed in the southern half over the weekend.


But Hanegbi's blunt words reflected the pall of mistrust that continues to hang over relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the early days of Abbas' administration.

After dismissing former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for years as unfit for negotiations, Israeli officials are warily eyeing Abbas, looking for signs that his policies will be a concrete departure from his predecessor's. Palestinians are wondering whether Sharon will take a different approach with the new Palestinian leadership.

Even before they have resumed talks, it is evident the two sides have different priorities. The Israelis want to discuss nothing but security at this stage. The Palestinians want to move immediately to political discussions and negotiations on a permanent peace.

Israeli military officials say Abbas appears to be making a serious effort to stop violence and seems to be making headway in talks with the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups on a cease-fire. But there still is plenty of skepticism among Israeli officials that Abbas will succeed in restoring calm for any length of time.

"The odds are against him," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "There are so many other factions and outside elements, like Iran and Hezbollah. What will happen depends on what decision is taken in Tehran and in Damascus," the Syrian capital where the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are based.

For now, only security contacts have been restored. Israeli officials say they won't resume political ties unless Abbas takes effective action to stop attacks. Israel's security Cabinet approved contingency plans last week for a substantial military incursion into the Gaza Strip if the rocket and mortar firings continue.

The suspension of contact with the Palestinian Authority after the border crossing attack and the renewal of only security ties are indicators of Sharon's focus on the security aspects of Israel's relations with the Palestinians.

Sharon has talked repeatedly of restoring quiet as a first priority, leaving peace negotiations to a later stage. He is pursuing a plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, known as the "disengagement plan," saying he is prepared to coordinate the pullout with Abbas if he makes a proven effort to halt militant violence.


"Political-level talks will only resume after steps are taken to stop terrorism and start reforming the Palestinian security forces," Gissin said. But "even when we resume talks, it will be on security matters, not political negotiations. We are not in the road map. We are talking now of coordinating the disengagement plan."

The "road map" peace plan, drawn up by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, outlines steps to end violence and resume negotiations leading to a peace agreement and the creation of a Palestinian state. The plan was accepted by Israel and the Palestinians but stalled because of violence and the failure of both sides to carry out its initial provisions.

While Sharon has effectively put off the road map, emphasizing security talks and coordinating the Gaza pullout, Abbas has called for a return to the plan and broader political negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an inaugural address this month, Abbas appealed for mutual implementation of the road map and also for parallel negotiations on the tough core issues of a permanent peace agreement: borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We are fully prepared to resume permanent-status negotiations, and we are politically ready to reach a comprehensive agreement on all the issues," Abbas said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.