The Shin Bet headquarters registered 12 warnings of terror attacks on Friday morning. This fact can be looked at two ways: It represents a drastic 80 percent drop compared to the 60 warnings registered two months ago, but it also means that the state of an almost-cease-fire is held hostage to the ability to foil 12 planned attacks. Not only 11 of the 12, but all 12. In addition, some planned attacks may never be picked up by intelligence networks, and only come to light at the moment of explosion, as seems to have been the case at Tel Aviv's Hebert Samuel promenade Friday night.
If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought that by ending Shin Bet head Avi Dichter's term of office in the middle of May he would get a security service that is less skeptical about the Palestinians' ability to pave the way for the Gaza withdrawal, he made a bitter mistake. His mistake would not be any less had he appointed someone else, and not Yuval Diskin, to head the Shin Bet. The Shin Bet's leadership, following in-depth discussions, is unanimous in its view of Mahmoud Abbas' limited ability to transform the security situation in the territories, on the eve of disengagement and beyond. At a time when Sharon's original plan is shedding its original unilateral logic and cloaking itself in expectations of bilateral cooperation, with Palestinians in the roles of peacekeeper, Abbas' incompetence is bad news for Sharon.
During the six weeks since Abbas took over, he has chalked up several auspicious achievements. Gaza has calmed down in comparison with the West Bank, and the power of a more moderate local Hamas group has grown compared to Hamas abroad. The rise of the Fatah's young leadership, at the expense of Tunisia's old-timers, was also seen as a positive trend.
These developments reflect the Palestinians' understanding that the political anchor for the next few years is the platform of U.S. President George W. Bush, who aims to create a terror-clean state within three and a half years, when he quits office. However, several inauspicious trends appear to be stronger at the present moment. Hamas is important, but Islamic Jihad is not necessarily emulating the example of the larger organization; most of the terror attacks are planned by Tanzim-Fatah, which draws its inspiration from Hezbollah; Hamas is singing a tune of moderation, but is demanding a large chunk of governmental responsibility, which Abbas cannot provide without harming his main support - Fatah; and until this moment, there has been no operational offensive by Abbas and his security bodies against terror other than well orchestrated brief detentions of suspects.
One of the Shin Bet's most serious fears, almost as large as the fear for Sharon's life, is fear of an Abbas assassination. Every time Abbas' car drives through Israeli territory, from the West Bank to Gaza, it is secured by the Shin Bet. Outside the vehicle, security guards form a sealed bubble around the convoy to foil any attempt by Israeli extremists to sow chaos in the Palestinian leadership again. Abbas was Yasser Arafat's expected successor. There is no such successor for Abbas. A mortal injury to Abbas could destroy the achievements of his early term and set back Israeli-Palestinian relations to the era of unbridled terror.
Another factor must be inserted into this equation - Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. The Shin Bet, surprisingly, insists on examining the prisoner issue from a legal, not security standpoint: the criterion for not releasing a prisoner is prior conviction in an Israeli court, rather than a criminal implication based on intelligence at a level of certainty that would meet the criterion for a targeted assassination (i.e. a targeted killing that would be carried out if it could foil a terror attack or the firing of a "ticking Qassam"). According to this criterion, a dispatcher of a suicide bomber who took a break from work for a few days and emitted no signal of future plans would be immune to a targeted attack by Israel during the cease-fire - in theory, this rule would apply to those responsible for Friday night's attack at the Stage club - while his colleague, who was caught and sentenced three months ago under similar circumstances and has already been convicted as a murderer, cannot be released.
On the eve of the London summit, the terror attack at the Herbert Samuel promenade teaches us that there is still a long road ahead before the Palestinians clear the way, in their own domain, for the evacuation of Gaza, so that it can truly become an internal Israeli issue.
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