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(photo credit: NATO [file])
Predicting potentially grave security consequences for Israel, defense officials responded pessimistically Thursday to news that former NATO commander and retired US general James Jones had been tapped by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the new special envoy to coordinate security between Israel and the Palestinians.
A senior defense official involved in talks with the Palestinians said that Jones was likely to invest most of his efforts in pressuring Israel to concede to the Palestinians and taking risks on issues of security.
"Another envoy is not what is needed now," the official said. "Both sides know what needs to be done, the problem is that due to everything else that is going on - including Hamas's control over Gaza and the current coalition in Israel - things are stuck."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the job involves monitoring the development of Palestinian security services. One focus would be how those forces interact with neighboring security services, including Israeli authorities.
McCormack said that Jones would work together with Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton who has for two years been working as the US security coordinator to the region. Israeli officials recently told The Jerusalem Post that they had been planning to ask the US to switch Dayton since a more "dominant figure" is needed in the position.
But officials warned Thursday that Jones's appointment could actually be detrimental for Israel since the general, whom they said is known for having a cold attitude towards Israel, would put pressure on the IDF to prematurely compromise on security issues at a time that the Palestinian security forces are not yet prepared to crack down on terror - as they are expected to under the Road Map.
The US-backed road map quickly foundered after it was presented in 2003 because the Palestinians did not rein in terror groups and Israel did not freeze construction in West Bank settlements, as they had both pledged to do. Bringing Jones in to closely follow the process is designed to assure that newly resumed peace talks don't languish because promises are broken.
The defense officials also pointed to the escalation in violence in the Gaza Strip, where the IDF killed over 20 Palestinian terrorists this past week, including 6 on Thursday, who were killed in two airstrikes in southern Gaza. During the past week, Palestinians fired over 70 mortar shells and over 25 Kassam rockets at Israeli communities in the Western Negev.
One of the airstrikes on Thursday was on a group of terrorists spotted laying an explosive device near the border fence. The other strike was on a Hamas position in Khan Younis and came in response to mortar fire against a nearby Israeli community the day before.
"There are growing chances for a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip, and if that happens Jones's work will not be needed here," another official predicted.
Another defense official predicted that Jones will not be willing to "get his hands dirty" with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since he does not want to get burned and spoil has political aspirations back in the US.
Jones, who ended his 40-year career in the Marines last February, will remain in his current job as president of the US Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Energy. Last summer he headed a congressionally chartered panel that studied the readiness of Iraq's army and police.
As disappointing as Israel was with Dayton, the official said that the general was at least willing to enter the fray and worked hard to come up with innovative ideas to rehabilitate the PA security forces.
"Even though he failed, Dayton at least tried," the official said. "It is not clear that Jones will make such an effort so as not to ruin his chances of making a political career in the future." AP contributed to the report.
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