Barak fears Hamas West Bank takeover

Defense minister warns US that weapons authorized for PA could ultimately be turned against Israel.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned the United States that gestures Israel is making to the Palestinians - including approving the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of weapons and armored vehicles, and allowing the deployment of PA policemen in West Bank cities - could ultimately backfire because Hamas could come to power in the West Bank and be better equipped to turn on Israel. Barak issued the warning during a recent meeting with the US special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Gen. James Jones. The Israeli defense establishment has drawn up a list of further gestures together with Jones that are set to include deploying 600 Jordanian-trained PA policemen in Jenin and the possible removal of dirt roadblocks. "We need to keep in mind the possibility that after all we have done, Hamas will take over the West Bank, not only by force but even in the upcoming general elections," Barak told Jones, according to defense officials. "This is certainly a possibility." Barak plans to present the list of gestures to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is set to arrive in Israel on Saturday night, during their meeting the next day. Rice's visit is aimed at getting both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make progress on commitments undertaken in the road map peace plan and to otherwise push forward the peace process begun at Annapolis, Maryland, in November. The US has indicated that neither party has met its obligations, but the Bush administration has seemed particularly frustrated by Israel's failure to remove any roadblocks or illegal outposts and its public declarations of continued settlement construction, albeit in places Israel expects to retain under any final-status agreement. "The rhetoric, regardless of the reality, is problematic because it doesn't help the environment in terms of the spirit of Annapolis, even if the things that are said don't end up coming to fruition and are [expressed] because of domestic politics," a senior US administration official told The Jerusalem Post. But Israeli defense officials dismissed claims that Barak was facing criticism from the US for not making greater efforts to remove roadblocks or to ease restrictions in the West Bank. "Both the Americans and the Palestinians understand that if we lift a roadblock and there is an attack we will fall back instead of moving forward in the negotiations," one official said. At the same time, the US has welcomed Barak's planned moves to ease movement for West Bank Palestinians. "These are welcome developments that indicate a desire by the Israeli authorities to move forward, to try to help improve the situation on the ground," the administration official said. The gestures, which have yet to be finalized, include the deployment in Jenin of 600 PA policemen currently being trained in Jordan. Barak is also considering the removal of several dirt roadblocks in the West Bank. The armed policemen in Jenin will be charged with maintaining order in the town during the day, but the IDF will retain security control and will continue to operate in the town at night. Other gestures included opening a VIP lane at checkpoints and exempting Palestinian businessmen who are approved by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) from inspections. While the Israelis are coming under pressure from the US to make things easier for the Palestinians, Israel is also worried that PA President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah could become to weak too fend off a challenge from Hamas in the West Bank - in the form either of a coup similar to that which left Hamas in control of Gaza last June or a victory at the ballot box. Hamas has recently been flexing its muscles and showing how it can play the role of spoiler in the diplomatic process - as violence from Gaza nearly ended the negotiations between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the last month. A tenuous calm has prevailed in the wake of Rice's last visit to calm tensions, and members of Fatah have been holding talks with Hamas through the mediation of Yemen. Though the talks don't appear to have led to reconciliation, neither the US nor Israel has been eager to see a return of the Fatah-Hamas unity government that was dissolved following the Gaza coup. The subject is expected to be among the subjects Rice discusses with the Palestinians. "We've made our views clear of the need for a Quartet-compliant government," the Bush administration official said, referring to the Middle East Quartet's demands that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. "Deviations will not work."