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(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Minister Amir Peretz spent his first week in office touring the defense establishment, meeting with IDF and security officials and issuing soothing messages that any expectations for major shakeups in key positions under his term were false and premature.
But in between one congratulatory toast and the other this week, Peretz already began getting his hands dirty, and in one of his first important decisions, eased up the tight closure that had been imposed on the territories over the past two months to begin allowing Palestinians back into Israel for work.
Claiming that a drop in the terrorist threat level allowed for the easing of the closure, Peretz undid what his predecessor Shaul Mofaz had created - a complete separation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the ultimate goal of producing enough economic and political pressure to topple the Hamas-led Palestinian government or at least force it to recognize Israel's right to exist.
Basing his decision on the recommendations of the IDF General Staff as well as the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Mofaz, since Hamas's victory in the PA legislative elections in January, held to the belief that intense pressure on the Palestinian people, including a complete closure on the territories and the crossings, could have the right effect and bring down the Hamas government.
So while it is too early to determine that Peretz has decided to take a different and more embracing approach to the PA, some elements within the defense establishment, particularly the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, are hoping that the new defense minister will heed their advice and come to the realization that Hamas is not going away.
Peretz seems to be moving in that direction and on Wednesday night, he ordered the coordinator, Maj.-Gen. Yosef Mishlav, to compile a plan that will facilitate the transfer of NIS 50 million in aid to the PA.
"We need to help [PA Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas," Peretz was quoted as saying in security consultations. "We need to find ways to bypass Hamas and to help the head of the PA gain strength."
Mishlav, who has served as the coordinator since 2003, has for months now been a minority in General Staff meetings and other security consultations under Mofaz's term as defense minister. While Mishlav warned that economic pressure would not bring Hamas down but would have the reverse effect and instead strengthen the terror group, the diplomatic echelon decided to adopt Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin's position that a tight closure and a halt to humanitarian aid could ultimately bring a moderate Palestinian government back to power.
But while Mishlav's view was sidelined, he did not sit around nonchalantly waiting for the diplomatic echelon to realize what he saw as its mistake. Instead, he used the past few months to prepare a detailed plan to provide humanitarian services, if and when Israel decides it wants to, for the Palestinian people.
The defense establishment and particularly the Shin Bet, one official in Mishlav's office said this week, have radicalized their position to the extent that they almost daily point a blaming finger at Hamas for every terrorist attack that originates within the PA territories, even when the Hamas leadership is not directly responsible.
Last week's announcement by the Shin Bet that Hamas was behind a recently thwarted large-scale attack on the Karni crossing into Gaza was, the official said, just another attempt by the agency to solidify the continued global isolation of the PA. Terrorists affiliated with Hamas were involved in planning the Karni attack, the official acknowledged, but to jump from there to say that the civilian and diplomatic leadership had been involved was going too far.
"Pointing a finger at Hamas for everything is not going to work," the official said. "This continued line of pressure is not going to topple Hamas but will instead strengthen the movement in the eyes of the Palestinian people."
The situation at the Karni crossing perfectly demonstrates the conflicting opinions within the defense establishment. Since the foiled attack two weeks ago, Karni has remained closed, preventing the transfer of aid to the PA. But according to the official in Mishlav's office, the continued closure "strengthens Hamas and doesn't weaken the government like the Shin Bet thinks it does."
Peretz's dovish way of thinking has not been accepted by everyone in the defense establishment. The Shin Bet points to a drastic rise in the number of recorded terror alerts which now stand at over 90 in contrast to just 70 a couple weeks ago. Easing up the closure and allowing workers back into Israel do not help the security agency battle terror but could instead, security officials warned, have the reverse effect and help terrorists get into Israel more easily. The overall position at the agency, one Shin Bet official said this week, is to continue holding a tight noose around Hamas's neck.
Peretz might also find a potential opponent to his more sympathetic attitude in Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the political-security bureau at the Defense Ministry, who said this week that it was "tremendously important for the world to isolate Hamas."
With Peretz in charge, however, Gilad needs to begin to digest the fact that the isolation method which dominated Mofaz's tenure might no longer be the name of the game.