|Focus on: Government Squabbles|
What is the Israeli government thinking? That thought must have crossed the minds of many this week, as government officials made several contradicting promises and authorizations.
The Israelis seemed initially to make several concessions to the Palestinians. On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Olmert met, for the first time, with Palestinian President Abbas. During the meeting, Olmert agreed to transfer $100 million of the $500 million in tax money that it has withheld since the Hamas government came into power.
At the meeting, the Prime Minister also announced plans to improve the Palestinian's ability to travel in the West Bank, including the removal of 27 checkpoints in the immediate future (there are 400 total in the West Bank). Other plans were to remove 32 other checkpoints; ease security screenings in cars and pedestrians at 16 major checkpoints; increase the number of goods flowing through West Bank crossings, including the Karni and Kerem Shalom border crossings; increase the number of travel permits allowed to Palestinians not involved in terror activities; and to pave interchanges along Route 60 in the West Bank.
Early in the week, there were additional signs that the Israeli government would approve a small prisoner release ahead of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, which begins this weekend. Such releases often occur around this time of year, and this one would have been as a goodwill gesture, without the simultaneous release of Gilad Shalit, whom the Palestinians have held since the summer.
Then, on Thursday, Israel approved an arms transfer from the Egyptian government to Abu Mazen's Presidential Guard, saying that it would "reinforce the forces of peace" in the region.
However, the Israeli government also made a decision that was the antithesis of these seemingly conciliatory gestures: on Tuesday, it announced plans, authorized by Defense Minister Peretz, to build the first new settlement in the West Bank, since construction stopped10 years ago. This settlement will be built on a former military outpost, previously inhabited by an IDF Nahal unit. More recently, the area has been the site of a pre-military Yeshiva. It will be settled by families from the former Gaza settlement Shirat Hayam.
So what is the reason for these conflicting acts? It's hard to tell for sure, but the answer may lie in the clashing personalities and viewpoints that make up the Israeli government. The rivalry between Olmert and Peretz is no secret, but there are more general divisions in the government.
On the one hand is the defense establishment, represented by the Defense Minister Peretz. This week, military and intelligence officials pushed for retaliation in Gaza, following a barrage of Qassam rockets in which two 14 year old boys were injured (Olmert and Peretz ended up authorizing pinpoint strikes against rocket launching cells). In general, the defense establishment is firmly against the Gaza ceasefire as well as the possibility of expanding it to the West Bank, warning that quiet will allow terrorist groups to obtain increased capabilities.
On the other hand is the pro-peace, pro-negotiations camp, represented by Foreign Minister Livni who met with Fatah leaders Yasser Abd Rabbo and Salam Fayyad early this week. Livni advocates negotiations, without the precondition of a ceasefire.
With Prime Minister Olmert seemingly wavering between the two sides, these contradictory missions are certainly affecting the Israeli government's actions. Certain gestures this week, such as Olmert's meeting with Abbas appeared designed to bolster Fatah in its rivalry with Hamas.
Other gestures -- the decision to build Maskiot -- were clearly aimed in the opposite direction. This decision is being criticized by the US and the EU, and Meretz USA made a statement saying that it "flies in the face of its own commitments... [and] disregards its own best interests."
Still other actions appeared confused. The Eid al- Adha holiday begins tomorrow, and so far no checkpoints have been removed and word came today that no prisoners will be released.
This week, a Haaretz editorial pointed out that Palestinians may soon have to choose again between a Fatah government and one run by Hamas. Israel must not be a silent observer in this process. It must demonstrate the "rosey" future Palestinians will have if they chose Fatah. At this time, when it's extremely important to work for peace, the Israeli government seems the victim of a tug-of-war between the left and the right. A New York Times editorial writes, "Israel's space for peace diplomacy is tightly constrained." Israel should not now be limiting this space.
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