Israel offered its first indication Monday that it was reassessing relations with the Palestinians after the death of Yasser Arafat, suggesting that it might coordinate its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip if the Palestinian Authority cracked down on militant groups.
Palestinian leaders reacted cautiously to remarks by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and argued that Israel should “unconditionally” reopen peace talks under the U.S.-backed “road map” plan.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had previously refused to negotiate the “unilateral disengagement plan” with Arafat, insisting that he was responsible for four years of fighting. Arafat’s death in a French hospital last week has opened up what many leaders believe is a crucial opportunity to revive the Middle East peace process by clearing the way for more moderate leadership.
Conditioned on Palestinian crackdown
Israeli officials said Monday that if leaders emerged who were willing to stem the violence, Israel was prepared to coordinate the plan to move troops and 8,800 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. Such coordination is considered critical to avoid a chaotic transition.
“Israel has every interest that Gaza will be ruled in a responsible manner when redeployment takes place,” Shalom said at a conference of North American Jews in Cleveland. “If the new leadership on the Palestinian side acts to combat terror, then we will be able to consider coordinating aspects of the ‘day after’ with them.”
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, confirmed that Shalom’s comments constituted a “new policy.”
Israel’s security establishment is examining ways to work with Palestinian security forces to hand over control of the Gaza Strip when Israel withdraws, Shalom told reporters in Washington after meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell. The recommendations will be discussed with Sharon in a meeting of senior officials on the matter, he said.
In another indication that Israel was pushing ahead with its implementation of its Gaza pullout plans, an Israeli parliamentary committee approved the allotment of almost $8 million to an authority overseeing the disengagement.
The decision cleared the way for compensation payments to Jewish settlers who evacuated voluntarily, an incentive Sharon hopes will mute settler opposition to the plan.
Numerous factions to deal with
Israeli and Palestinian officials alike have expressed fears that an evacuation from Gaza that is not coordinated would bring chaos to the Gaza Strip, where militant groups have been competing for control in recent months.
In a sign of the uncertainty, shots were fired Sunday in Gaza as Mahmoud Abbas, a leading candidate in Palestinian elections on Jan. 9, attended a gathering of people mourning Arafat. Two security guards were killed, and fears were raised that the violence could spiral.
A cease-fire by Palestinian militants is a central Israeli condition for the coordination of the Gaza pullout plan, Shalom said. Israel also expects the Palestinians to disarm the groups, stop anti-Israeli incitement and implement security and financial reforms, he said.
In response, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said he suspected that the Israelis would put up too many conditions for coordinating the pullout.
“Israel should talk to us unconditionally,” Erekat told The Associated Press. “This line of conditioning things ... has been the way government handles things.”
The Palestinian Authority is required in the road map to combat militant groups.
The plan — backed by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, known as the “Quartet” — was formally accepted by the sides in 2003, but it never got off the ground because of mutual accusations of violations. Powell told reporters Monday that he hoped to convene a meeting of the Quartet when he visited the region next month.
Powell said his resignation as secretary of state — which Shalom called “a big loss for the peace in the Middle East” — would not derail the process.
“We’re going to keep moving forward,” Powell said. “It’s the president’s policies that are being pursued and implemented, not Colin Powell’s.”