PM to hold talks on `mega-terror' attack
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will convene a meeting today of high-level government and defense personnel to discuss Israel's plans in case of a `mega-terror' attack involving many casualties.
Various scenarios will be presented and possible reactions will be examined.
Prior to the meeting, Sharon will meet with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom for a discussion of Israel's available methods of strategic deterrence. Sharon apparently wants to examine various ongoing projects in light of current security restraints and the economic crisis. Public Security Minister Uzi Landau will join the group for the mega-terror discussion.
Today's discussions are part of a series of consultations and study tours that Sharon has undertaken this week in order to formulate a national security policy for the near future. On Monday, Sharon brought in Ben-Eliezer and the top echelons of the army and the Shin Bet security service for a situation assessment in light of the wave of recent terror attacks, and he also toured the seam line by helicopter. Yesterday he visited troops from the Binyamin Brigade.
Sharon has accepted the defense establishment's position that Israel should continue its current policies in the conflict with the Palestinians, despite the difficulties caused by the failure to find an immediate solution for the terror problem. The Israel Defense Forces will continue its operations against the terrorist infrastructure and preventive measures such as closures, curfews and arrests, integrated with humanitarian measures to make life easier for the Palestinian population and a renewal of diplomatic contacts with "an alternative leadership to Arafat" in the Palestinian Authority. The aim is to achieve local cease-fires. Sharon does not want the army to resume control of Palestinian cities, and he opposes a renewed conquest of the entire West Bank, which would require reestablishing the military government and the Civil Administration.
IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon has adopted the position that the current conflict is a "war of attrition" in which victory is achieved by "points," gradually, and not in one decisive blow. Defense sources said yesterday that the security policy is based on the idea of "accumulating points" through many small, limited operations that will add up to a process of change in which the Palestinians recognize that they will not achieve anything with terror. But the sources said that "the process needs time to reach fruition," and meanwhile a chance should be given to the security channel that Ben-Eliezer has opened with Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the PA's Preventive Security Service in Gaza, and the new Palestinian Interior Minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh. On Monday, Ben-Eliezer decided to move ahead with easing conditions for the Palestinians, even while banning Palestinian vehicular traffic in the northern West Bank.
There is also another reason for the decision to avoid any escalation: The IDF is taking much more care in gathering intelligence and planning operations due to the civilian deaths caused by its assassination of Hamas military commander Salah Shehadeh.
Ben-Eliezer's meeting with Yehiyeh, Dahlan and Amin al-Hindi on Monday ended with a disagreement. The defense minister proposed that the Palestinians take responsibility for security in Gaza and fight terror there, and in exchange, the IDF would withdraw from Area A in Gaza and start implementing a series of economic and security abatements for the Palestinians. Israel chose Gaza as a pilot because it believes that PA forces there have been largely unhurt by IDF operations and because the risk to Israel is less than it would be in the West Bank. Ben-Eliezer said that if the plan works in Gaza, it would be expanded to include the Judea area, meaning Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron.
According to the Israelis, the Palestinians turned down the plan, saying they prefer the Israeli withdrawal to begin in Ramallah, seat of the PA's government in the West Bank and the office of the PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. Ben-Eliezer turned that down, saying "first let's see how you do in Gaza." Now Israel awaits a formal answer from the Palestinians, with both sides agreeing to continue the discussions. A response may be forthcoming after Yehiyeh's meetings later this week in Washington, as part of a Palestinian delegation for talks with U.S. officials.
Palestinian sources hinted strongly yesterday that the PA is ready for an arrangement under which Israeli troops would gradually withdraw to their positions of September 28, 2000 in Gaza, Jericho and another city in the West Bank - probably Bethlehem. Palestinian officials said that was the instruction given to the Palestinian team that met with Ben-Eliezer. According to the Palestinians, they did not turn down a Gaza first process, but wanted it to coincide with a withdrawal from Jericho and at least one other city in the West Bank. They said they proposed Ramallah, but when Ben-Eliezer turned that down, they were ready to accept Bethlehem instead.
However, there are discrepancies between various Palestinian versions of their position. One source said that the PA is "studying" Ben-Eliezer's proposal, while another said the PA would insist on a Ramallah withdrawal as part of the deal.
Islamic groups have already announced their opposition to what they called "the staged withdrawals from the cities."
Senior Palestinian officials said yesterday that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement for a staged withdrawal of any sort would also require internal Palestinian arrangements for a cease-fire that would include Hamas. An Israeli-Palestinian agreement cannot be implemented in an atmosphere of "civil war," they said; it will only work if the change in Israeli positions on the ground persuades the public that the arrangement is worthwhile, thus making it possible to convince Hamas to cease attacks on Israeli civilians.
Meanwhile, Palestinian security officials in Bethlehem were already beginning to discuss internal security arrangements in the city last night to prepare for an Israeli withdrawal.
Israel now feels that it has relatively free room to maneuver politically. A senior Israeli official who returned from talks in Washington reported that the White House does not appear to be interested in a solution to the conflict now, and that as long as it can be contained, avoiding any outbreak of major violence, the U.S. will not intervene. The State Department is still trying to develop ideas that would give content to the "political horizon" outlined by President George W. Bush on June 24, when he called for a Palestinian state within three years. But there are no instructions from the White House to make progress on the political track, as the administration is now focused on another issue - the plan to change the regime in Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer met yesterday with Sharon's bureau chief, attorney Dov Weisglass, for a meeting termed as "routine." Weisglass, who concentrates on the political and diplomatic sphere for Sharon, has recently institutionalized a working channel with Kurtzer.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday lashed out at the Palestinians, saying that "there is no doubt that the PA is indeed involved in terror activity, despite its promise to provide security." Speaking publicly with Pentagon workers, Rumsfeld said that he doubts Israel will be able to negotiate with the PA and hand over territories to it, due to the PA's problematic reputation. His speech was strongly pro-Israel, referring to the "so-called occupied territories," and saying that Palestinians from the diaspora might need to go to the territories in order to establish a government that could negotiate with Israel.