Ahmed Qureia wanted guarantees. What he got was gore. The speaker of the Palestinian parliament, tapped by Yasser Arafat to form a new government on Sept. 7, held out for four days before reluctantly accepting the post. After watching the self-immolation of his predecessor, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Qureia had a list of stipulations. He wanted guarantees that Israel would stop building settlements on Arab land, stop building a security fence, stop locking down Palestinian cities. He wanted guarantees that the United States would hold Israel accountable, move the peace plan forward, and stop its isolation of Mr. Arafat.
Without these guarantees, Mr. Qureia would refuse the job: "These are my conditions from all the parties who are concerned about the peace process."
But in the politics of the world's most troubled region, there are no guarantees, and promises are made to be broken. The promise of peace under a U.S.-brokered "road map," for instance, looks like nothing more than a cruel joke after weeks of bloody back-and-forth attacks. The escalating violence forced the resignation of Mr. Abbas, who was hailed just four months ago as the best hope for peace in the Middle East.
Mr. Abbas's successor gave up on guarantees after a brutal day that saw two suicide bombings and a retaliatory air strike. He hurriedly accepted the prime ministry, condemned the latest Israeli bombing, and promised to name a cabinet within hours. But even as he took over the reins, the Palestinian Authority seemed to be galloping toward a precipice. Israeli officials said the Palestinian government had lost total control and hinted at all-out war in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the militant Islamist group Hamas warned that no Israelis were safe, even in their own homes.
For the new Palestinian leader, the job seems impossible. With both sides on high alert, Mr. Qureia must appease the Israelis and Americans without appearing to do their bidding, crack down on Islamic militants without provoking civil war, and prove his independence from Mr. Arafat without alienating the popularly elected leader.
By week's end it appeared he was all but guaranteed to fail.
The accession of Mr. Qureia couldn't have been more different from that of his predecessor, Mr. Abbas. The former prime minister was hand-picked by the Israelis and Americans to provide a counterweight to Mr. Arafat, with whom Israeli officials refused to negotiate. Although Mr. Abbas was the second-ranking leader in Mr. Arafat's own Fatah party, relations between the two men were chilly at best. Indeed, Mr. Arafat initially refused to appoint a prime minister, fearing a newcomer would usurp his power.
In the end, international pressure proved too strong to resist. With Russia, the European Union, and the United States all plugging the road map to peace, Mr. Arafat was forced to accept a prime minister as a condition for implementing the peace plan. Almost immediately Mr. Abbas seemed to make unprecedented progress, winning high-level meetings with Israeli officials and a cease-fire from Islamic militants.
What he never won, however, was control of the Palestinian security forces, which remained loyal to Mr. Arafat. When violent fringe groups violated the cease-fire, Mr. Abbas had no military options for bringing them into line. Without a Palestinian response, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) took matters into their own hands, conducting retaliatory raids throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That, in turn, led to more reprisals from the Palestinians, and the cease-fire slowly disintegrated.
The spiral of violence hurt the prime minister's credibility as an agent of law and order-surely the result that his rival Mr. Arafat had hoped for. The beginning of the end came on Aug. 21 when Israeli forces assassinated senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab to avenge a Jerusalem bus bombing that took 22 lives. Several more assassinations followed as the pressure on Mr. Abbas mounted, threatening to spill over into a Palestinian civil war. Leaders of Hamas charged that the prime minister was an American puppet, and Mr. Arafat seemed content to let his No. 2 twist in the wind. With little support from either the Palestinian mainstream or the radical fringe, Mr. Abbas tendered his resignation on Sept. 6, citing "harsh and dangerous domestic incitement" against his government.
Mr. Arafat surprised many international observers by quickly accepting the resignation, and Mr. Qureia's name surfaced almost at once as a replacement. Palestinian hardliners gloated: "We believe the creation of this [Abbas] government was a strategic mistake because it was the result of foreign pressure and therefore its failure was inevitable," senior Hamas leader Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi told the French Press Agency.
But the radicals' sense of victory was fleeting. Within hours of the resignation, Israel tried to kill Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a feeble, nearly blind spiritual leader who is easily the most beloved figure in the Hamas organization. The botched assassination-Sheikh Yassin escaped with barely a scratch-electrified the Palestinians, who feared a widespread Israeli offensive in the wake of the Abbas resignation. Hamas vowed to "open the gates of hell" in retaliation, and Israel went into its highest state of alert. Intelligence indicated that a suspected terrorist had managed to slip out of the besieged West Bank city of Hebron. Police both in Jerusalem and in the north were told to be on the lookout.
As Israel has learned in the past, however, no amount of watchfulness can protect against terrorists who live at such close range and die with such fervor. On Sept. 9, as Mr. Arafat waited for an answer from his prime ministerÐdesignate, several dozen Israeli soldiers waited for a bus near the entrance of a Tel Aviv army base. Around 6 p.m. a 19-year-old Palestinian jumped out of a slow-moving car, took several steps toward the soldiers, and blew himself up. Eight Israelis died in the attack.
Five hours later it happened again, this time in the narrow streets of an upscale West Jerusalem neighborhood known as the German Colony. Late-night diners at the popular CafŽ Hillel looked up to see a scuffle at the door. Security guards, long a fixture at the entrance of nearly every shop and restaurant in Jerusalem, were wrestling with a young Palestinian just inside the doorway. Moments later, according to eyewitnesses, the three figures were engulfed in a fireball that roared through the cafŽ, shattering windows and overturning tables. Seven died.
Israel struck back within hours, firing missiles into the home of Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas political leader. Mr. Zahar and his wife sustained slight injuries, but their 29-year-old son was killed, along with two bystanders. The reprisal marked a new escalation in the conflict. Never before had the Israelis targeted suspected terrorists in their homes. Hamas warned it was prepared to respond in kind: "The targeting of civilian houses is a violation of all red lines. Therefore the Zionist enemy will have to shoulder responsibility for the targeting by us of houses and Zionist buildings everywhere in occupied Palestine," the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, said in a statement.
With his homeland teetering on the brink of house-to-house warfare, Mr. Qureia at last rushed to accept the position of prime minister. But Israel appeared unwilling to grant him the same respect it had accorded his predecessor. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Knesset on Sept. 10 that the Sharon government "will not cooperate with an Arafat lackey. We expect an independent government that is not umbilically tied to Arafat, which will dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, continue to implement reforms, and end incitement against Israel." He still held out hope for the roadmap, but Mr. Mofaz said Israel was temporarily halting its diplomatic efforts to see the plan implemented.
In Washington, State Department officials insisted the roadmap was not dead. Spokesman Richard Boucher stressed that the Bush administration was willing to work with the new prime minister, though he seemed unable to explain how negotiating with Mr. Arafat's hand-picked nominee was any different from negotiating with Mr. Arafat himself.
"We're not trying to pick the Palestinian prime minister. That's a job for the Palestinians and particularly the Palestinian legislative council to decide on who their prime minister is going to be.... What we have made clear is that we look forward to working with the Palestinian prime minister particularly if he is empowered, if he has control of the resources to deal with the security situation and make real progress on the roadmap."
Will Mr. Qureia meet any of those criteria? He announced immediately that he was consolidating control of the Palestinian defense forces, but he didn't say whether those forces would be brought to bear against Hamas militants. Any attempt to crush Hamas would almost certainly spark a civil war between the Islamist extremists and the more secular, mainstream Fatah movement.
Israel, however, left little doubt that it was ready to crush Hamas on its own, without waiting to see what Mr. Qureia was willing-or able-to do. Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon cut short a state visit to India to huddle with his advisers, and Palestinian leaders said they feared an imminent invasion of the Gaza Strip. Israel might also defy the Bush administration by expelling Mr. Arafat from the West Bank compound where they've kept him surrounded for the past 20 months.
That would instantly make Mr. Qureia the highest-ranking member of the Fatah party, giving him, perhaps, more negotiating clout with the Israelis. But it could also make him a target for Muslim extremists who despise Fatah's secularist streak and put up with Mr. Arafat only because of his long record against Israel. Without a popular figurehead, neither Mr. Qureia nor Mr. Abbas nor any other member of Fatah could likely prevent the slide to civil war.
Anarchy on the West Bank, in turn, would almost guarantee an Israeli occupation. And that's not the sort of guarantee Mr. Qureia was looking for when he took the job.
-with reporting from Priya Abraham in Washington