Palestinian leader will need international help

WHAT began as a week of optimism with the election of the moderate Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president is ending with a jolt to hopes of reviving peace negotiations.

As he did with the late Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, is now ruling out meetings with Mr Abbas "until he makes a real effort to stop the terrorism".

This sends a message of determination to the Israeli public, including hardliners in Mr Sharon’s Likud Party who oppose his plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip starting in July. But he is also signalling to the United States that Israel will not acquiesce in Mr Abbas’s intended approach to Hamas and other militant groups, nor will it allow him a honeymoon period.

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Mr Abbas made clear during the election campaign that he would use dialogue and persuasion rather than coercion to achieve a ceasefire by the militants. Now Mr Sharon has made clear this will not be enough: Mr Abbas must disarm and dismantle them.

That puts Mr Abbas in a near impossible position. Without achieving any tangible gains from Israel in improving daily life or moving towards statehood first, public opinion will not support cracking down on the militants.

The Palestinian president must hope the international community, which greeted his election so warmly, will pressure Mr Sharon to back down.