Analysis: Abbas, Haniyeh breathing easier after Jericho

Ironically, the IDF operation against the murderers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi will make life much easier for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas's Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh. Ever since he was elected as chairman of the PA more than a year ago, Abbas has been under immense pressure to release Ahmed Sa'dat, Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP], and his colleagues. Last week, Abbas told a large group of PFLP supporters that he would release Sa'dat and his friends only if he is not held responsible for their safety afterwards. Shortly after he entered office, Abbas raised the issue of Ze'evi's assassins with Israeli, American and European officials. Abbas was hoping that the PFLP men would be permitted to move to the Gaza Strip or to one of the Arab countries. However, Israel refused to discuss any deal, making it clear to Abbas that Ze'evi's assassins must remain in prison in Jericho or Israel. Israel also warned Abbas that Sa'dat and his friends would be captured or killed immediately after they walk out of the Jericho lock-up. Abbas relayed this message to Sa'dat through a series of phone calls and messengers who visited him in Jericho over the past 14 months. Outgoing Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat, who lives in Jericho, met with Sa'dat on a regular basis to explain to him the difficulties facing Abbas. A few months ago, the PFLP decided to participate in the parliamentary election with the hope that such a move would lead to the release of Ze'evi's assassins. The Marxist group, which never recognized the Oslo Accords, boycotted the first parliamentary election in 1996. The PFLP list, headed by Sa'dat, won three seats in the parliament. After the results were announced, the group's leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were among the first to announce their willingness to join a Hamas-led cabinet. A PFLP delegation that met with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip demanded that the new cabinet order the release of Sa'dat and his friends. Hamas immediately accepted the demand, saying the PFLP men would be released once the new cabinet is sworn in. Yet despite the promise, Hamas leaders privately expressed concern over the affair, saying they did not want a confrontation with the US and the European Union over the Ze'evi case. The last thing the new Hamas regime wants is to alienate the international community over a bunch of Communist activists suspected of involvement in the assassination of an Israeli minister. In addition, Hamas did not consider the PFLP, which is a tiny group, a major partner in the new coalition. For the past four years, the case of the Ze'evi assassins was a source of headache for the PA. Many Palestinians were unhappy with the deal that resulted in the transfer of the PFLP men to a Jericho prison and accused former Palestinian officials of conspiring with Israel and the US. The case was also threatening to bring more trouble for the Hamas cabinet. Now both Hamas and the PA have good reason to stop worrying about the fate of Sa'dat and his friends.