The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Militants challenge Palestine Premier

Jerusalem, May 20 (Reuters): A new wave of suicide bombings in Israel presents Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas with a make-or-break challenge just three weeks after he took office.

Militants have thrown down the gauntlet by carrying out five bombings in three days which undermine Abbas’ pledges to curb violence, challenge his authority and dent the chances of success of an international peace plan he supports.

US President George W. Bush telephoned Abbas today and their first conversation was “friendly and hopeful,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

“The President reiterated his vision ... for two states living side-by-side in peace and the President reiterated the absolute need for all parties to fight terror,” Fleischer said. The call lasted about 15 minutes.

Abbas’ credibility could suffer a fatal blow if he fails to tackle the militants. But his ability to do so is limited by internal power struggles, Israel’s hesitancy over the “road map” peace plan and its tough military measures in Palestinian areas.

“He can’t do much because the situation is not in his hands alone. It is also in the hands of Israel and the international community which wanted him appointed,” Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian professor of politics, said today.

“He needs Israel to accept and implement the road map. He has to deliver the Palestinians something to give them a reason to support a crackdown, or his support among them will wither away. If he can’t deliver anything, he will be a lame duck.”

Israel has cited security reasons for its reticence over the road map, which outlines reciprocal steps on the way to the creation of a Palestinian state. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will keep talking to Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

Ran Cohen, an Israeli Opposition member of parliament, said Israel’s failure to accept the road map — mainly for security reasons — played into the hands of the militants and President Yasser Arafat, whom Israel says wants to undermine Abbas.

“Israel is helping Abu Mazen fail and I am very sorry to say that we are helping Arafat and terrorists prevent Abu Mazen making progress,” Cohen told Israel Radio.

Israel and the US have been trying to isolate Arafat, accusing him of failing to control Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad which have carried out suicide bombings.

in a 31-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation.

Arafat named Abbas prime minister under pressure from the United States and other international leaders seeking reforms of his Palestinian Authority and hoping to dilute his power.

Arafat has not relinquished full power and Abbas's ability to control the security forces remains in question, a factor which affects his ability to enforce a crackdown on militants.

”Abu Mazen looks weak. He hasn't been able to get control of all the security organs or the information apparatus. He doesn't even have the moral legitimacy of having been elected,” said Israeli security and political analyst Mark Heller.

Arafat has avoided a head-on confrontation with Hamas, which opposes Israel's existence, because it could risk a Palestinian civil war. Abu Mazen has similar fears and could ill afford to start such a struggle without huge public support behind him.

”If he took on Hamas, there'd be an internal Palestinian conflict,” said Heller. But he added that Abbas would risk losing all credibility abroad if he did not confront Hamas.

Palestinians say the destruction of police bases by Israeli military strikes and army blockades of Palestinian areas make a crackdown on Hamas impossible, but Heller questioned this.

Abbas's priority is to persuade the militant groups to accept a ceasefire but few people expect a truce to be agreed and even fewer say it would be likely to hold.

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