Urging peace, Abbas installed as Palestinians' first premier

Hours later, bomb kills 3, hurts dozens in Tel Aviv

April 30, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Declaring that the armed conflict with Israel had run its course, Mahmoud Abbas was installed yesterday as the first Palestinian prime minister and his new Cabinet was approved by Palestinian lawmakers.

The legislators' endorsement of Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, cleared an important hurdle for the unveiling of a U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map."

Hours later, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to a bar along the beachfront promenade in Tel Aviv, adjacent to the U.S. Embassy. The powerful blast at Mike's Place, a popular tourist spot, shortly after 1 a.m., killed the bomber and at least two others. More than three dozen people were wounded. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast.

Leaders of Palestinian militant groups have criticized Abbas and threatened to topple the new government if he orders a crackdown on militias. In yesterday's speech, Abbas had vowed to confiscate illegal weapons.

"This is the first test of the new Palestinian government," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, early today. "Right now, it looks like another failure. We are talking about an imminent threat to Israel that requires that the Palestinians do something different. They should be hunting down the armed groups as we speak."

Bush administration officials said the attack was aimed at sabotaging renewed peace efforts. Last year, militants launched a wave of attacks when President Bush sent peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni to the region in a failed bid to secure a cease-fire.

"These homicide bombers are not only trying to murder innocent civilians but they are also attempting to kill the aspirations of the Palestinian people for their own free, democratic, prosperous state," said Sean McCormack, a National Security Council spokesman.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell still intends to meet next week with Abbas and Sharon, and that the attack in Tel Aviv would not derail publication of the road map to peace, which they had promised to unveil when Abbas took office.

The ascension of Abbas follows weeks of wrangling between him and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and was a product of intense international pressure to curb Arafat's powers. Speaking publicly yesterday for the first time since he was nominated for the post six weeks ago, Abbas told an audience of legislators and diplomats in Arafat's presidential compound that the Palestinians' use of violence as a strategic tool had failed to change political realities.

"We denounce terrorism by any party and in all its shapes and forms, both because of our religious and moral traditions and because we are convinced that such methods do not lend support to a just cause like ours, but rather destroy it," Abbas said. He promised to end what he called "armed chaos" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying: "These methods do not achieve peace, to which we aspire."

Later, Abbas said Palestinians "should translate our decades and generations of popular and revolutionary struggles into political achievements that will bring us closer to our goal of establishing our independent state."

The 67-year-old Abbas must now persuade militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to put down their weapons and end suicide bombings and other attacks. Those are steps Arafat was either unwilling or unable to make. If the militants do not comply, Abbas could be forced to confront them, at the risk of civil war.

With Abbas in place, the Bush administration is expected to release the long-awaited road map, which calls for both sides to make concessions leading to a Palestinian state in the summer of 2005. Yet this new initiative already is in danger as Israelis and Palestinians bicker over which side should make the first move.

Israeli officials object to the peace plan's call for the two sides to make concessions simultaneously. They demand that the Palestinians stop all violence and dismantle militant groups as a prerequisite to any other steps.

Neither side trusts the other's ability or will to make the types of concessions needed - such as the freezing or dismantling of Jewish settlements and the ending of Palestinian violence - for the plan to succeed.

The Bush administration will now shift its attention to Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, who face stiff opposition from militant groups whose leaders vow to resist any attempt to limit their actions.

The key to making the road map a success, Israeli and Palestinian officials say, is how much pressure the United States brings to bear to force both sides to accept unpopular measures, including the removal of some Israeli settlements and the beginning of meaningful Palestinian security reforms.

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