Israel watches as crisis remakes reality

Foreign minister calls for pressure on Egypt to thwart arms smuggling.

Livni Olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Livni Olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel continued to keep a hands-off, low-profile approach to the dramatic events in the Gaza Strip, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert holding a series of high-level security consultations on Thursday but making no public comments on the developments or on how Israel will react. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said that as long as the border crossings at Erez and Karni do not fall into Hamas's hands, Israel will not have to decide whether it would agree to "functional contact" with Hamas to make sure that humanitarian assistance gets through the crossings and to the Palestinians. "Things are very fluid, and at this point we are watching carefully to see how things develop," one senior official said, adding that it was too early to say whether Israel would - because of the circumstances - be compelled to deal with Hamas. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, seemed to finally give public vent to Israel's frustrations with Egypt's failure to stop the arms smuggling into Gaza. According to a statement issued by her office, Livni told Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva during a meeting in Lisbon that the international community should place pressure on Egypt to increase its intervention in this "critical" matter. It was the first time Livni had publicly appealed to the international community to use its leverage to get Cairo to do more to stem the Hamas arms buildup. Cairo's support will also be essential to allow an international force of some kind to take up positions along the Philadelphi Corridor, an idea that - while still in exploratory stages - is gaining some traction in Jerusalem. Livni made clear during her talks in Portugal that Israel would not want to see a supervisory force there, but rather a force that could take action to stop the arms smuggling. The nature of the force - whether it would be made up of troops from Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, or whether it would be a UN or perhaps a NATO force - was being discussed in Jerusalem and elsewhere, including in Cairo, according to diplomatic officials. The turn of events inside Gaza, and how to manage them, will now undoubtedly dominate talks Olmert will have in Washington next week with President George W. Bush and the top tier of US leaders. Diplomatic officials said it was not clear whether Bush would go ahead with what was expected to be a major Middle East policy address on June 24, five years since he articulated his two-state vision. While the speech was originally expected to chart out how Bush hoped to move forward toward this objective in his remaining 18 months in office, diplomatic officials said there was a good chance that the speech's content would be changed, or the address would be scrapped altogether. Olmert is now expected, while in Washington, to be asked to do much more to ensure that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah do not lose the West Bank, like they have Gaza. He is also likely to hear some criticism that, had Israel done more to prop up the Palestinian "moderates," the situation would not have reached the current crisis point. Other issues, such as an Israeli response to the US's so-called "benchmark" plan aimed at inching the Israeli-Palestinian track forward, have plainly been overtaken by events. Some of the steps that plan called on Israel to take, such as to permit a truck convoy from Gaza to the West Bank or allowing easier access at the Gaza border crossings, are now not on the agenda.