In the nearly two months since Mahmoud Abbas resigned as Palestinian Authority prime minister, the United States has stepped back from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the meantime, Israel has adopted a two-pronged policy, taking bold unilateral moves while encouraging Abbas' successor to form a government with which Israel can negotiate.
In the hiatus following Abbas' departure, the Israeli government has approved the route of the controversial security fence separating Israel from the West Bank; stepped up anti-terror military activity and called for bids to build more than 300 apartments in disputed areas.
The policy cuts two ways: It begins to impose an Israeli vision of a weakened and truncated Palestinian entity, and it puts pressure on the Palestinians to start negotiating in earnest before that vision becomes a reality.
On Oct. 1, Israel's Cabinet approved a route for the security fence that -- if all the planned sections eventually are joined -- would include sizable tracts of the West Bank on the Israeli side.
Moreover, in an Israeli television interview last week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intimated that, despite American objections to the main fence's route, he was contemplating a second, eastern fence along the Jordan Valley.
That would have major implications: If both fences are built, the entire West Bank would be fenced in and the Palestinians would get no more than 60 percent of the land.
Analysts who argue that this reflects Sharon's bottom line were quick to point out that, taken together, the route of the fences is very close to the borders Sharon saw for the West Bank in his 1989 autobiography, "Warrior."
A senior Israeli official confirmed that Sharon's intention was to keep the entire Jordan Valley under Israeli control, maintaining that plans for the eastern fence had been approved in principle but that there was no budget for it yet.
In the aftermath of Abbas' resignation in September, Sharon also stepped up Israel's anti-terrorist campaign. Ground forces blew up tunnels in Rafah used to smuggle arms from Egypt to the Gaza Strip, destroying dozens of houses in the process. In addition, special units killed or detained terrorist leaders in the West Bank, and Israeli fighter planes and helicopters ran operations in Gaza, where a number of civilians were killed and wounded along with the terrorists targeted.
The American response was remarkably low-key, especially after the Oct. 15 Palestinian bombing of a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip that killed three Americans. U.S. spokesmen said only that Israel should take into account the consequences of its military actions -- a sign of American assent, if not endorsement.
In late October, Israel made yet another unilateral move: The Housing Ministry called for bids for the construction of 333 apartments in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron and in Givat Ze'ev, a Jerusalem neighborhood beyond the pre-1967 border.
Palestinian leaders accused Israel of trying to torpedo the road map. This time the United States was less circumspect in its response, describing the Israeli move as "a provocation" and threatening to deduct the settlement activity's cost from the $9 billion it has promised Israel in loan guarantees. However, at the same time as he has increased pressure on the Palestinians, Sharon has been making overtures to Ahmad Karia, who replaced Abbas and has been heading an emergency Cabinet appointed by P.A. President Yasser Arafat.
Moreover, partly to ease what the army calls an "explosive pressure cooker" situation in Palestinian areas and partly to encourage Karia, Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz have decided to ease some of the restrictions on Palestinian movement, despite warnings from security officials that this could enable terrorists to carry out attacks.
Whether the new combination of carrot-and-stick will work remains to be seen. Karia has been studiously avoiding direct contact with Israeli officials, arguing that their embrace of his predecessor hurt Abbas' standing on the Palestinian street.
Last week in Cairo, Karia told American negotiator William Burns that he believes he will be able to form a government before his emergency mandate expires Nov. 4 -- the main sticking point has been a struggle with Arafat for control of the Palestinian Authority's myriad security services -- and that he is relatively optimistic about the future.
The key question remains whether the Palestinians can get all the terrorist factions to cease their attacks on Israel. Karia has sent letters to the various terrorist organizations calling for cease-fire talks. Hamas spokesmen say they are ready to meet Karia to "hear what he has to say,'' but are not convinced that conditions for a cease-fire are ripe.
If Karia does get a cease-fire, however, the equation will change. The United States probably will come back into the picture, pressing both parties to take the road map forward. Israel's capacity for unilateral action will be circumscribed, and a second round of talks on the road map will begin.
After Abbas' resounding failure in the first round, and with the sword of Israel's unilateral options hanging over their heads, the Palestinians might be more aware of the potential consequences of failure this time.
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