Terror Crackdown Is 'Litmus Test' of New Palestinian Government

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - A crackdown on terror will be the real litmus test of the new Palestinian government, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Thursday.

But analysts said it might be more difficult than expected for Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) to curb terrorism and effectively neutralize the power of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Arafat and Abu Mazen reached an important agreement on cabinet appointments on Wednesday after days of disputes during which Abu Mazen threatened to resign before taking office.

According to the compromise, reached with the help of Egyptian mediators, Abu Mazen will hold the post of prime minister as well as interior minister, with former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan in charge of security affairs.

Arafat had opposed the appointment of Dahlan, whom he fired last year. Dahlan is widely believed to be the only PA official with the will and the power to crack down on terrorists.

According to media reports, Arafat will be free to leave his Ramallah compound, where he has been pinned down by Israel for most of the last 17 months.

But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office released a statement on Thursday denying the reports.

"The State of Israel has in no way made any commitment whatsoever regarding Yasser Arafat's freedom of movement, his conditions of office, or his political future," the statement said.

First order of business

The Palestinian cabinet requires the approval of the 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council, which could meet as soon as early next week. Once the cabinet is confirmed, President Bush has promised to publish his so-called "road map" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Israel has made it very clear that real efforts to stop terrorism must serve as proof that the new Palestinian government is serious about peace.

"The first order of business for any Palestinian government is the fight on terrorism," said senior Sharon advisor Dr. Dore Gold.

Israel has received scores of terror warnings during the last week, most of which have been foiled by Israeli security forces, Gold said. The "real litmus test" of the new government will be how it battles terrorism, Gold said in a telephone interview.

Neutralizing Arafat

Abu Mazen is not likely to have an easy time. Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine have already warned Abu Mazen not to interfere with their attacks against Israel.

A suicide bomber, reportedly connected to the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade (which is linked to Arafat's Fatah faction) blew himself up in the Israeli city of Kfar Saba on Thursday, killing one guard and wounding 13 others.

The attack, the first that slipped through Israeli security lines in weeks, came one day after the agreement between Arafat and Abu Mazen.

Dr. Mark Heller, principle research assistant at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, said he doesn't see a connection between the attack and Abu Mazen's new government.

"It will probably be interpreted that way," Heller said. "But I doubt if attack was launched in response to [the new Palestinian government]."

The only difference between this attack other others was that it was not thwarted by Israeli security forces, Heller said. It's not as if they weren't trying all along, he added.

But Dr. Ely Karmon of the International Policy Institute on Counter-terrorism said the fact there was a terror attack today was "clearly significant."

"I don't think by chance it happened today," Karmon said. "They made a special effort to do it today [to show] the opposition to Abu Mazen and the peace process is strong."

Karmon pointed to what he called the "menacing" statement by Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi on Wednesday calling for continued resistance as an indicator of the struggle that Abu Mazen may have in tackling terrorism.

"It [will be] difficult for Abu Mazen to dominate the situation," Karmon said. "[It may be] more difficult than was thought."

According to Karmon the struggle between Arafat and Abu Mazen over the cabinet appointments "proved that Arafat still has a lot of cards in his hands."

It appears to many Palestinians that Abu Mazen was a choice imposed by the Americans and Israelis, he said.

The challenge will be "not only to stop the terrorism but to neutralize Arafat. He is still too strong to be ignored."

"The real issue is if the people under the guidance [of Abu Mazen] will have first of all, the determination, and secondly, be able to crackdown on terrorism," Heller said.

Heller said Israel and the rest of the world would have to give Abu Mazen a chance to prove himself. It seems like Abu Mazen and Dahlan want to do the job, Heller said, but the "proof of the pudding is in the eating. I don't imagine Arafat will be very encouraging."

One sign that Dahlan might be the right person for the crackdown on terrorism is that Arafat was trying to get rid of him, he said.

As for the weeklong dispute between Arafat and Abu Mazen over Dahlan's appointment, Heller noted that that was consistent with the way Arafat deals with issues "pushing them to the brink...seeming to cave in and then wiggling his way out when he can.""