JERUSALEM (AP) – Expressing growing frustration with Mahmoud Abbas, Israel”s defense minister dismissed the Palestinian leader as "a one-man show" bereft of support from his own people and said he sees little chance that a peace deal can be reached with the Palestinians in the present generation.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz”s remarks were published in an Israeli newspaper Friday, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared he would not meet Abbas until the Palestinian leader cracks down on militants, and after seven Palestinians were killed in a missile strike against Islamic Jihad gunmen in Gaza.
The latest round of fighting and Israel”s unprecedented criticism of Abbas pushed the prospect of peace talks, promising after Israel”s Gaza pullout last month, farther off the table.
The week began with Israeli troops killing the top Islamic Jihad gunman in the West Bank, followed by an Islamic Jihad revenge bombing that killed five Israelis in an open-air market in the central Israeli town of Hadera.
In response, Sharon threatened a "broad and relentless" offensive against militants, including mass arrests and air strikes, but security officials said Israel would stop short of carrying out a large-scale military operation.
On Thursday evening, in Gaza”s Jebaliya refugee camp, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a car carrying four Islamic Jihad members, killing them and three bystanders. Hospital officials said 15 people were wounded.
Among those killed was Shadi Mohanna, Islamic Jihad”s field commander for northern Gaza. Israel said Mohanna was responsible for rocket barrages on Israeli towns and for recruiting attackers.
About 20,000 mourners, among them hundreds of masked gunmen, turned out for the victims” funeral Friday, parading the bodies on stretchers from a mosque near Jabaliya. The gunmen, from both Islamic Jihad and Hamas, fired volleys into the air while women and children, some weeping, watched from their balconies.
Late Thursday and early Friday, Israeli helicopters repeatedly fired missiles at northern Gaza, targeting areas from where militants fire rockets. Electricity was knocked out in several places. In the West Bank, Israeli troops rounded up 12 Islamic Jihad activists.
Islamic Jihad threatened revenge. "There will be a painful, immediate response" to the missile strike, said Khader Habib, a spokesman for the group. Late Thursday, Islamic Jihad said it fired rockets at Israel. However, witnesses said they landed inside Gaza. There were no reports of casualties.
On Friday morning, the Israeli army, said a single rocket fired from Gaza fell on empty ground in southern Israel, causing no injury or damage.
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, has condemned the latest suicide bombing, but Israel said he must do much more.
Sharon said Thursday he would not meet with Abbas unless he takes "serious and tangible action" against militants. In his interview Friday with the Yediot Ahronot daily, Mofaz launched an unprecedented attack on Abbas, saying the Palestinian leader had become so ineffective and isolated from his people that he is not a partner for negotiating a peace deal with Israel.
"Abu Mazen is a one-man show," Mofaz was quoted as saying. "Behind him, there is nothing, only emptiness. Governmental vacuum. In fact, there is no one to talk to. Abu Mazen and his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership… haven”t done a thing so far. The Palestinian Authority is not an address for us."
Mofaz said the best that could be expected was another round of interim agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. "I”m not at all sure that we can ever reach a peace agreement with the present Palestinian leadership," Mofaz told the paper. "We shall have to wait for the next generation."
While Israeli leaders have by and large avoided personal criticism of Abbas, Mofaz” comments are in line with Sharon”s preference for a long-term interim deal that would allow Israel to avoid dealing with explosive issues, such as the fate of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mofaz” statements were symptomatic of Israeli contempt for Palestinian institutions, bred by years of Israeli occupation.
"I don”t think Israel”s problem is with this generation or that generation of Palestinians or this person or that person, Israel”s problem is with the whole Palestinian people," he said. "My call to Mr. Mofaz is that she should respect the democratic structures of the Palestinians and I would tell him he always has a partner here."