Israel must allow time for Mr Abbas to show his mettle

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It is premature to conclude that the honeymoon between Israel and the newly-elected Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, is already over. But its start has hardly been propitious. Within a day of last week's suicide bombing, in which six Israelis were killed, the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, had announced that he was severing ties with Mr Abbas and ordered an army raid on Gaza. Yesterday, he formally lifted all restrictions on Israeli operations against Palestinian militants.

Mr Sharon's sharp response to the first fatal attack after Mr Abbas's election may well be designed to communicate both to Israeli voters and to the new Palestinian leadership that, for all the hopes invested in the post-Arafat line-up, he is starting as he intends to go on. As was clear from Mr Sharon's initial message of congratulations to Mr Abbas, security is, and will remain, the priority for Israel.

The speed and harshness of Israel's response seems nonetheless to contradict the greater understanding it had recently shown for the difficulties of the post-Arafat leadership. It was always unreasonable to expect a clear-cut end to the violence and suicide attacks as soon as a new president was in place. Yet Mr Sharon told his Cabinet yesterday that despite the change in Palestinian leadership, there was still no sign that they were acting against terrorism. The election had taken place just one week before; Mr Abbas was sworn in only on Saturday.

Mahmoud Abbas is due to visit Gaza this week and is expected to appeal to the militants to stop their attacks on Israel and allow the political process to advance. The Palestinians' top executive body yesterday called for a halt to "all military attacks that harm our national interests and provide excuses to Israel".

The question is whether Mr Sharon's hard line will nudge Mr Abbas towards tougher action against would-be suicide bombers or simply provoke new resentment among ordinary Palestinians. With so much at stake, finesse and patience are called for, not the heavy hand. The Israelis backed Mr Abbas for president in the belief that he could be a serious negotiating partner. It is not in their interests to undercut his position now.

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