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Walker´s World: Cautious hopes of Israel´s Springtime (UPI) VIA-WASHINGTON TIMES) By Martin Walker JERUSALEM, Israel 01/27/05)Source: http://www.washtimes.com/upi-breaking/20050127-011209-1323r.htm UPI} UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL UPI} UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Jerusalem, Israel, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Across Israel, from the prime minister´s office to the coffee bar by the military bunker atop the Golan Heights, from the cafeteria in the Knesset, Israel´s parliament, to university common rooms, the sense of hope is blooming like the Spring. Israelis have learned, from bitter experience, that all optimism must be cautious and ruthlessly conditional on the avoidance of yet another terror attack, but this time the signs are truly promising.

A lot of the credit goes to the newly elected president of the Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who is moving hard and fast to clean up the squalid and corrupt image bequeathed by Yasser Arafat. This week, he went to the PA TV station to tell them to stop reporting everything he did with Soviet-style reverence. Cover the news, he said; don´t make a cult of personality. And learn to compete with al-Jazeera and the BBC.

The Abbas move that has most impressed Israeli officials, however, came Tuesday night on the beachfront of the Gaza strip. Abbas sent PA police and bulldozers to demolish ten newly built houses, and an array of fast-food shacks that had been erected on PA-owned land without building permits. The point is that the houses were built by officials of Arafat´s old security forces, whose 12 separate organizations are now being pruned into three by Abbas.

And Abbas has appointed Gen. Nasser Youssef, a professional policeman and soldier rather than a politician, to run the A security service, even though the militants of Hamas hate him for demolishing one of the makeshift mosques they erected on PA land - again without a permit.

There have been a lot of changes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank since Abbas, often known by his nickname of Abu Mazen, took over. Just ask Mouin Abu al-Eish, an ambulance driver in the Gaza Strip. He earns $400 a month from the Ministry of Health and another $220 a month from the al-Awda hospital. He also used to get an "Arafat envelope" every few weeks, three crisp $50 bills straight from the PA chairman himself.

Arafat´s envelopes were a crucial feature of his power, a personal patronage system based on cash, in which loyalists and influential or useful people -- or some just doing a good job, like the ambulance driver -- were paid directly from Arafat in transactions that never went though the books. Half of the $8 billion in international aid that went to the PA after the Oslo accords in 1993 has never been accounted for - and a lot of its went into Arafat´s envelopes. Abbas has now stopped this system and installed orthodox accounting procedures.

What probably matters most is the way that Abbas has been asserting his authority over the security system, and making the PA police and security forces deploy to prevent more rocket attacks against Israel from the Gaza strip. That is what Ariel Sharon´s government said it wanted, and now that Abbas has started to deliver, the government has started to respond. They have dropped Sharon´s ban on direct talks with the PA, and the vice-primer Shimon Peres has already met Saab Erekat, PA negotiations minister, and a meeting between Abbas and Sharon is now being tentatively arranged.

The question now is whether Abbas can deliver a cease-fire that includes the militants like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that until recently seemed more likely to launch a civil war with the PA for dominance within the Palestinian community. The signs are hopeful, in part because of war weariness by the decimated Hamas organization in Gaza, where the local leader Mahmoud al-Zahar now says the future for Hamas must lie through competing in PA elections.

Above all, Hamas has now reportedly accepted (in talks with Abbas) the principle of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with its capital in Jerusalem, as the basis for negotiations with Israel. In return, Abbas has agreed to bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad into a "supreme diplomatic authority" which will review any deal with the Israelis. Arafat always refused to dilute the PLO´s authority in this way. But the price may be worth paying; this is the first time Hamas has abandoned its traditional position that the whole of Israel is "waqf´ land, a Muslim religious trust that can never be given away and must therefore be wholly liberated.

These are dramatic changes, and only part of them can be attributed to the death of Arafat and the new broom of Mahmoud Abbas, a reformer who is starting to inspire the same kind of excitement even among skeptical Israelis that Mikhail Gorbachev stirred with his talks of glasnost and perestroika in the old Soviet Union, 20 years ago.

But something else was required to give Abbas this space to maneuver. And for all its controversy and blunt ugliness, the fact is that the Israeli security fence and wall has done its job of ending, or at least massively reducing, the grim toll of the Palestinian suicide bombers. Israeli nerves have been calmed, and the demands for massive and brutal retaliation have been muted.

The other important factor, too little regarded outside Israel, is Ariel Sharon´s remarkable decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and, at least initially, from four "illegal" settlements in the West Bank. Sharon, once the hero of Israel´s settlers, is now the villain and the betrayer, and daily demonstrations outside the Knesset curse his name. There is no secret that it was the Palestinian demographic threat that convinced Sharon, the prospect of being so outbred by the fertile Palestinians that the Jews would become a minority in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Whatever the motive, Sharon is firm that there will be an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer, with the removal - by force if necessary - of some 8,000 Jewish settlers. Secret "proximity" talks have been under way at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in which Israeli and Palestinian officials meet separately with World Bank officials to hammer out arrangement for property transfer, bank payments, transport links and communications.

The legitimate and elected leader of the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas, will have a tract of land and more than a million Palestinians to rule. The signs are that by then, the Israeli Army will have handed over security authority to the PA for some of the West Bank cities. And then comes the elections for the Palestinian parliament, which Hamas is to contest.

This may not mean that swords are being hammered into plowshares, but does suggest that terrorists are being transformed into politicians, just as Israeli hard-liner Ariel Sharon is being transformed into the man who withdraws from Gaza. If it took Nixon to go to China, maybe it takes Sharon to be a peacemaker.

Springtime is coming in the Middle East, as fragile and maybe as illusory as the dusting of green shoots that one sees on the tawny, arid slopes of the Judaean hills outside Jerusalem. The surprise is that the green shoots emerge at all. (Copyright 2005 United Press International 01/27/05)

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