'No immediate plans to topple Hamas'

Olmert, Barak assure Jordan's king Israel doesn't intend to launch major Gaza op in near future.

olmert abdullah 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert abdullah 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak assured Jordan's King Abdullah this week that Israel does not intend to launch a major offensive to bring down the Hamas regime in Gaza in the near future, Jordanian sources told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. The two Israeli leaders did not rule out a range of less dramatic military operations against Hamas and other terror operatives in the Strip. Olmert and Barak, who met with Abdullah in Amman on Tuesday, told the king that Israel greatly values its peace partnership with Jordan and would bear the interests of the Hashemite leadership in mind as it grapples with the dilemmas posed by Hamas's rule in Gaza. Abdullah on Thursday briefed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Aqaba on the results of the secretive Tuesday meeting. The Prime Minister's Office on Thursday refused to confirm that the meeting had even taken place. But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni did respond to news of the talks, at which Abdullah cautioned his Israeli guests that a large-scale military operation in Gaza would have serious repercussions for his country and the region. While Israel respected the importance of its relations with its Arab peace partners, and heeded their concerns, Livni said, it would continue to act according to its own interests. "Israel does indeed have strategic ties with its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, and listens to their needs, but the bottom line remains that the country acts according to the interests of the Israeli citizen," she said, during a visit to the Tefen Industrial Park. Abdullah is also understood to have relayed to Olmert and Barak a message from Hamas in which the movement emphasized its keenness on maintaining the truce with Israel. Top Jordanian security officials have been holding a "frank dialogue" with Hamas representatives in the past few weeks in a bid to ease tensions between the two parties. Tuesday's meeting was arranged after the Jordanians said they received information according to which Israel was planning a major operation in the Gaza Strip - not only to stop the rocket attacks, but also to topple the Hamas regime, the sources said. According to the information, a large-scale action was envisaged that might claim the lives of many Israelis and Palestinians - and stir unrest on the Arab and Muslim street. The Israeli military drive, the Jordanians were told, was also aimed at restoring the regime of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Gaza Strip after eliminating the Hamas leadership and overthrowing their government. The Jordanians' biggest fear was that Olmert and Barak were each planning to embark on such an "adventure" for reasons related to the upcoming general elections in Israel, the sources said. The Jordanian monarchy has good reason to fear the consequences of such an operation, the sources noted. In the past, IDF operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which sometimes resulted in the killing of dozens of Palestinians, triggered a wave of protests throughout the kingdom and the rest of the Arab world. In Jordan, where more than two-thirds of the population is Palestinians, the protests were always tolerated by the authorities, largely because they did not pose a threat to the regime. But Abdullah and his government fear that any Israeli attempt to overthrow the Hamas regime would spark an unprecedented wave of violence in the kingdom. Jordanian sources pointed out on Thursday that US-led efforts to get rid of the Hamas government over the past two years had backfired, earning the movement even greater support and sympathy among the Palestinians. "There's a feeling that Hamas continues to be popular among a majority of Palestinians," said a retired Jordanian government official. "Hamas owes its strength and popularity to the Americans - who have been waging a public campaign, with the help of the Palestinian Authority, to remove the Islamist government from power. In the end it was Hamas that managed to kick the Palestinian Authority out of the Gaza Strip." Relations between Hamas and Jordan were strained after the late King Hussein deported Hamas leaders and closed down their offices in Amman about 10 years ago. The tensions reached their peak two years ago when the Jordanians announced that they had thwarted an attempt by Hamas to smuggle weapons into the kingdom for launching terror attacks on Israel. The Jordanian monarch is hoping that the talks with Hamas will send a message to the disgruntled Palestinian refugees living in the kingdom that Jordan is not involved in the US "conspiracy" to bring down the democratically-elected government of Hamas, the sources said. The Jordanians are convinced that Hamas remains an influential player in the West Bank despite the massive crackdown on its supporters by Abbas's security forces over the past few weeks. "Abbas is still too weak and he hardly has any credibility among his people," the former government official said. "I'm afraid that if we hold a free election tomorrow in the West Bank, Hamas would win." Another reason why the Jordanians are worried about the ongoing efforts to bring down Hamas is because of the movement's strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood organization in the kingdom. Together with Hamas supporters in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying in recent weeks to organize a series of protests against the continued blockade on the Gaza Strip. Anti-Israel and anti-US protests in Arab capitals are often directed also against the Arab heads of state under the pretext that they are pawns in the hands of Washington. The Arab leaders are also accused by their constituents of failing to use their good offices with the US to exert pressure on Israel. Unlike the majority of the Arab leaders, Abdullah is in a much more vulnerable situation because of his country's peace treaty with Israel and because of the Palestinian majority in the kingdom. The same applies to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who is also worried about the repercussions of an Israeli military offensive so close to his country. In addition to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the sources said, the Jordanians are also worried about Al-Qaida's ongoing efforts to destabilize the monarchy. Jordan is particularly concerned that a US pullout from Iraq would embolden Al-Qaida and other radical Islamist groups - posing a major threat to the kingdom's security. The pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that during Tuesday's meeting, the two sides also discussed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. According to the London-based paper, Olmert briefed Abdullah on the ongoing peace talks and the results of his most recent meeting with Abbas. According to diplomatic officials in London quoted by the paper, Abdullah stressed the need for continued peace negotiations and progress towards a two-state solution, which he said was the only option for achieving peace in the region. He also reportedly emphasized that Jordan had a strategic interest in the establishment of a Palestinian state. Al-Hayat also reported that Abdullah asked Olmert to take immediate steps to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people to create an atmosphere conducive to progress in the peace talks. He stressed the need for Israel not to increase tension, particularly in Gaza. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said he was not commenting on media reports regarding the visit to Amman.