WASHINGTON – After essentially sitting on the sidelines as it observed the escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the Bush administration this week moved to contain the deterioration, sending two of its top diplomats to the region and receiving assurances from Israel that its aim is not to bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch left Washington for Israel earlier this week, to encourage talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. The two American envoys are looking for ways to bring to an end the standoff between Olmert’s government and several Gaza militias, including one linked to Hamas, believed to be holding a kidnapped Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. The two senior American officials are also encouraging the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to intensify the diplomatic dialogue that they started on June 22 in Amman, a senior administration official told the Jerusalem Post Monday.
In addition to the diplomatic mediation efforts, the Bush administration is believed to have moved this week to secure assurances from Olmert that his government is not attempting to topple the Palestinian government. Last week, the Forward reported that the administration seemed to have dropped demands that Israel not destroy the institutions of the P.A. America’s European allies and many Middle East experts, including former senior administration officials, have been warning in recent months that the collapse of the P.A. may push Palestinian society into utter chaos.
Israel killed nine Palestinians Wednesday in an airstrike targeting the Gaza City hideout of Mohammed Deif, chief of Hamas’s armed wing. Israeli military officials said he was wounded. Palestinians denied that Deif, who has been on Israel’s wanted list for a decade, was hurt, but said the blast killed another Hamas leader as well as eight members of his family.
In a separate operation, Israeli tanks and troops pushed into central Gaza in an apparent bid to bisect the coastal territory and intensify searches for Shalit, who was kidnapped June 25. In the current wave of violence, 50 Palestinians, mostly combatants, have died, compared to one Israeli soldier likely killed by friendly fire in northern Gaza.
Israel’s latest moves came amid a wave of international concern over the specter of a humanitarian and political collapse in Gaza, as well as criticism of America’s diplomatic inaction. Observers said, however, that Washington appears to have asked Israel to clarify whether or not it intends to cause the collapse of the P.A. An official communiqué issued following Sunday’s weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet characterized the political objective of the current offensive in Gaza as “the determination of new rules of conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government.”
America’s diplomatic action, aimed to a large extent at strengthening Abbas — leader of the secular-nationalist Fatah movement — as an interlocutor in talks with Israel, comes as Palestinian public opinion radicalizes, in tandem with the spiraling violence. A poll taken earlier this month by the reputable Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre showed that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, 77%, support the abduction of the Israeli soldier, 67% support the continuation of such operations and 60% support the continuation of launching rockets into Israel. In addition, the poll showed a slight increase in support for Hamas, the terrorist organization that was elected more than six months ago to govern the West Bank and Gaza.
The P.A.’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, published an article Tuesday in the Washington Post, calling for negotiations with Israel to “resolve the core 1948 issues, rather than the secondary ones from 1967.” In his article, Haniyeh says that the Palestinians’ goal is “reclaiming all lands occupied in 1967,” but stops short of endorsing a two-state solution with a Palestinian state confined to the 1967 borders.
Olmert rejected the overture, just as last week he rejected a demand by Shalit’s captors that hundreds of Palestinians jailed in Israel be freed.
“We will not negotiate with terrorists,” Olmert said. “We will not negotiate with Hamas. To do so would encourage more abductions.”
But prior to the abduction of two more soldiers near the Lebanon border (see story, Page 1), one of Olmert’s closest allies in the Cabinet suggested that a kind of retroactive prisoner swap could be in the works.
“The release of the kidnapped soldier will be a must. The moment that Qassam rocket fire also stops, we will enter a period of quiet, at the end of which it will be possible to release prisoners as a goodwill gesture,” Israel’s internal security minister, Avi Dichter, said at a conference in Tel Aviv. “This is something that Israel has done in the past and that can serve it in the future as well.”
The remarks were relayed internationally, prompting Dichter to say he had been misunderstood and Olmert’s office to deny a deal was in the offing.
Israel appears prepared to keep its forces in Gaza, especially as cross-border rocket fire has continued in defiance of the crackdown. Three people in the Israeli border town of Sderot were wounded, one moderately, by a salvo on their homes Sunday.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the Cabinet he envisages a situation where tanks and troops are dispatched to Gaza on an ad-hoc basis.
“We are prepared to continue the operation another month, two months and if need be even more,” said Major General Yoav Gallant, chief of the army’s Southern Command. “When the Palestinians do their overall reckoning in another month or two, and count the hundreds of dead terrorists and the infrastructure that has been damaged, I expect that they will think twice before the next kidnapping attempt.”