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Security and Defense: Goodwill gesture or kiss of death?

This week, Jerusalem looked as though it had been invaded by the United States. Foreigners, here for Succot and the Feast of the Tabernacles, filled the hotels, restaurants and tourist sites. This would not have been the case a mere few years ago, when the city was under attack at the height of the second intifada.

Seven years have passed since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in October 2000. And while the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) are doing a remarkable job in keeping Palestinian terror out of our cities, defense officials used the occasion of the anniversary to warn of the potential of the outbreak of a third intifada. The likelihood of this, they said, depends on the outcome of the Middle East peace summit scheduled to be held in November at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Indeed, skepticism and pessimism accurately describe the current mood in the defense establishment concerning anything that has to do with the summit. Defense officials have even referred to the preparatory talks among negotiating teams set up by Israelis and Palestinians as "a lot of hot air."

Meanwhile, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to release security prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi called the move "unethical" while Cpl. Gilad Schalit is still being held captive by Hamas

The discrepancies between the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry on these issues are both political and security-related. The defense establishment is not completely behind all of Olmert's goodwill gestures to the Palestinians. Three weeks ago, when Olmert asked the defense establishment to lift a number of roadblocks in the West Bank as a favor to Abbas, defense officials and Central Command officers expressed opposition to the move, claiming that the Palestinians first needed to prove their capabilities in combating terrorism.

While Ashkenazi ultimately approved the prisoner release this week, his reservations - as well as the defense establishment's overall doubts concerning Abbas's ability to deliver - indicate that while Olmert might have his hands full getting the Palestinians to cooperate ahead of Annapolis, his defense establishment is not playing ball either.

Despite these differences, the November meeting is starting to evolve into a summit with potential. The Syrians are mulling participation (President Bashar Assad told the BBC this week that it depended on whether the Golan Heights would be a topic of discussion); Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are beginning to get on board; and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is already planning her third trip to the region to garner more support for the meeting from the Arab world.

And Abbas is sounding optimistic, saying this week that peace could be achieved by May. "We have noted that the whole world is interested in this meeting and attaches great hopes to its success," Abbas told the Foreign Press Association, adding that after the conference "we will begin negotiations on the details under a time frame, which ought not to exceed six months, to reach a peace treaty."

AT THE same time however, as The Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday, the Palestinians are conditioning their participation on the stipulation that they succeed in reaching general agreement with Israel on final-status issues such as Jerusalem, borders for a future Palestinian state, refugees, Jewish settlements and water.

Senior Defense Ministry officials said it was likely that Israel would not be able to deliver what the Palestinians are demanding and, as a result, the summit could fail even before it begins. The Europeans have also begun to acknowledge this possibility and are pressuring the US to hold the summit "no matter what" so as not to appear to fail in face of the world and particularly Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

One of the main reasons for the defense establishment's pessimistic assessment has to do with the makeup of Olmert's coalition. With right-wing partners like Shas and Israel Beiteinu, Olmert has to be careful before conceding too much during the pre-summit meetings. Next week, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman will convene his party to set its "red lines" for the summit. It is unlikely that Olmert will be able to overstep those boundaries.

On the other side of the coalition sits Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is turning into more of an adversary for Olmert than a partner when it comes to the Palestinian issue. A seasoned negotiator with the Palestinians, Barak, according to officials close to him, is doubtful that Abbas will be able to deliver before or after the summit. There is also the question of what to do about the Gaza Strip, which is under Hamas rule and does not fit in so easily to Olmert and Abbas's budding prospects for peace.

Despite the skepticism, Barak is taking steps to strengthen Abbas ahead of the summit and has met several times in recent months with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Last month, Barak allowed the PA to deploy 500 armed policemen in Nablus and told Fayad that if the move was successful and the security forces cracked down on terror elements, then he would consider allowing the same type of deployment in additional West Bank cities.

But since taking office three-and-a-half months ago, Barak has demonstrated over and over again that national security precedes concessions to the Palestinians. This was his reasoning when postponing his decision on lifting roadblocks last month, and this was also his reasoning when stating that Israel cannot withdraw from another inch of land before a defense system is in place to intercept Kassam rockets. The earliest that will happen is five years from now.

In addition, while Olmert and Abbas are racing to Annapolis, Barak has ordered the IDF to complete preparations for a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip. "We are drawing closer to such an operation with every day that passes," he said last week.

While it is the defense minister's job to ensure security, it is interesting to see Barak use right-wing rhetoric usually favored by the likes of Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. During his term as prime minister in 2000, Barak proposed a withdrawal from 90 percent of the territories, including Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, in exchange for peace with the Palestinians. Today, instead of talking about large-scale withdrawals, he prefers to speak of large-scale military operations in Gaza.

His conduct is partially due to political considerations - he needs to distinguish himself from Olmert and distance himself from the public's collective memory of the failures of the recent withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon. But his stance on the Palestinian issue also has to do with the fact that he fears that if the peace summit fails, the country will find itself facing a new round of extreme Palestinian violence in the West Bank.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak voiced similar concerns last week, telling reporters that "if the summit does not formulate a clear agenda, it could lead to a regional explosion and the outbreak of violence."

Israel is concerned with this possibility, and defense officials are warning that while the daily IDF operations in the West Bank are keeping terror down to a minimum, Hamas, contrary to public thinking, is just as strong in Judea and Samaria as it is in Gaza.

According to defense officials, Hamas is in the process of trying to establish a military force in the West Bank similar to its Executive Force in the Gaza Strip. "They have weapons and explosives and, more importantly, they are highly motivated," a senior defense official said.

In the IDF, predictions are that Abbas's time is running out and that in the coming months Hamas will try to topple his government in the West Bank and attempt to take over the PA security branches and institutions there like it did in June in Gaza. If the summit fails, the predictions go, then this will almost definitely happen.

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