Sat, Jan 22, 2005 - Page 6 News List

In the Middle East face-off, brinkmanship is at play


After beating the war drums over Gaza to get the attention of new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel has put aside plans for a full-scale invasion to allow him further time to get Palestinian radicals and militants under control. In the end, it was a nerve-racking but perhaps productive exercise in brinkmanship.

As the two sides feel their way forward toward negotiations on a final settlement, there will be more lurches toward warfare, more showmanship, more tactical retreats. It is a matter of necessity as well as design, and it serves both sides' interests in projecting a posture of independence and strength.

Contrary to appearances, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is relatively close at senior levels, with an intimate understanding of each side's political problems. The death of Yasser Arafat has created difficulties as well as opportunities, but the Israelis and Palestinians seem at this early date to be finding a modus operandi -- so long as they avoid the appearance of working together too closely.

The signs over the last few days have been good as far as the Israelis are concerned, indicating that Abbas has been listening.

He has gone to the Gaza Strip to talk with the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad about a cease-fire; he has warned his security chiefs to get serious about stopping violence against Israel and Israeli civilians; he has told them to guard more strictly the crossing points in Gaza, which the militants have attacked; and he has ordered hundreds of Palestinian security forces to deploy in northern Gaza to try to prevent the radicals from launching mortars and Qassam rockets toward Israeli settlements and towns.

Israel has responded with its own gestures, deciding on Thursday to reopen the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, allowing thousands of Palestinians stuck in Egypt, some for weeks, to return home. Israel says it will also continue security cooperation with the Palestinians, with security officials praising Abbas' actions in the last few days as much as they disparaged his alleged inaction a few days before that.

But this latest act of Israeli-Palestinian theater barely gets to the fundamentals of the problem. Leaders on both sides are operating in a fragile environment that they know can be disrupted by any serious act of terrorism. That would sharply increase domestic political pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has staked his reputation on his plan to pull out of Gaza this summer.

To stop the terrorist attacks, Abbas wants to bring Hamas into the Palestinian power structure to tame it, rather than isolate it. He wants Hamas to take part in legislative elections in July, not boycott them. He is talking with Hamas and the others about a cease-fire that would be temporary and even informal.

Israel is putting pressuring on Abbas to make good on the Palestinian promise, in stage one of the peace plan called the road map, to "dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism." To some extent that demand, along with the threat to invade Gaza, helps Abbas. He can appear strong by resisting the demand on terrorism and using the threat of a Gaza invasion to make a more convincing case to Hamas that a ceasefire is in its interests as well.

But he also depends in a real sense on Israel's restraint and its willingness, for example, to stop its selective killings of known and wanted militants.

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