PM flies to US worried about Gaza, hopeful on W. Bank

hamas abbas office (photo credit: AP)
hamas abbas office
(photo credit: AP)
"The reality on the ground is that as of now, Gaza is separate from the West Bank. We didn't decide that, the Palestinians decided that, but it creates a new reality," a senior official in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Saturday, before Olmert's depatrture for the US. Part of that reality, the official said, "is there is an opportunity to be able to work with the moderates, with the Palestinian government that actually recognizes Israel, and to really show what the benefits of moderation are."
  • PM flies to US worried about Gaza The Palestinian crisis will dominate Olmert's talks in New York and Washington, and sources in his office hinted he would now be open to US suggestions to take steps in the direction of Palestinian Authority Chairman Abbas that he was unwilling to take in the past - such as releasing frozen PA tax revenues and lifting some roadblocks. "Now we have the opportunity to work with a leader we can really work with, both on security issues - the issue of roadblocks and access - and also on financial issues, but it will only be on the West Bank," the official said. The United States strengthened its offer of support for Abbas on Saturday, telling him an international aid embargo against the PA would end as soon as he formed a new government without Hamas, aides to Abbas and a US diplomat said. Channel 10 reported Saturday night that Olmert and Bush would discuss an aid package for Abbas that would include lifting the embargo, and providing financial assistance and weapons. The TV report, which did not cite its sources, said Bush would ask Olmert to make additional concessions such as dismantling roadblocks in the West Bank. The prime minister's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Abbas's new government would invite a drastic change in the international community's stance. "When the new government takes office, it's a whole new ball game," she said, adding that the current situation opened "new possibilities." Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said on Saturday that Israel would allow food and other basic supplies into the Gaza Strip. "Our consideration is the humanitarian issue. Allowing merchandise through Karni to prevent hunger in Gaza is what will guide Israel in allowing in goods," he told Channel 2. Dichter said Hamas's conquest of Gaza signaled the collapse of the PA, the government entity established under past peace accords. He also said the new reality had turned the West Bank into "an arena of opportunity" for Israel. "Now Israel must have a completely different policy in Gaza," he said. He said a Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip should be treated as a "terrorist entity" and have its weapons supply cut off. Regarding Gaza, an Israeli official said, Israel wanted to see international involvement both in providing humanitarian assistance, and in taking up positions along the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt to prevent arms smuggling. "Nobody in Israel or around the world wants to see a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, on Israel's or Egypt's door step. It will have to be dealt with," the official said. Israel, however, will have to decide very soon whether to establish "functional contact" with the Hamas government to make that humanitarian assistance possible. The proposed international involvement will likely be the focus of the first leg of Olmert's talks Sunday in New York with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban began exploratory discussion on the matter in the UN Security Council last week. Israel has made clear that it is interested in a force on the Sinai-Gaza border that would have the authority to combat arms smugglers, and not merely an observer mission. There has been some discussion of a force that would be made up of Jordanian and Egyptians troops. Olmert was scheduled to meet with Jewish leaders in New York Sunday, and there were also efforts to arrange meeting with some of the presidential hopefuls, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, NY Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Government sources in Jerusalem said that while the candidates were keen on meeting with Olmert for their own campaign purposes, it was a tricky juggling act for Olmert since he would not have time for everyone, but didn't want to slight anyone. On Monday, Olmert will fly to Washington for two days of intensive meetings with the US leadership. He is scheduled to meet with US President George W. Bush on Tuesday morning. According to sources in Olmert's office, while the meeting with Bush will focus on Gaza and the changes caused by the new situation, the two leaders will still discuss what can be done to move the diplomatic process forward. Olmert will also meet separately with Vice President Dick Cheney, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Congressional leaders from both parties. The talks with Cheney are expected to focus on Iran and the need to turn up the heat on Teheran by stepping up sanctions, including the possibility of clamping an embargo on the sale of weapons to the regime. Olmert's talks with Gates are expected to deal with an accommodation officials said that the US and Israel had reached regarding the sale of "smart bombs" to Saudi Arabia. Israel was looking for restrictions on that sale, and Israeli officials said they were satisfied with what was agreed upon in high-level talks in Washington last week. The discussion with Gates will also likely deal with a new 10-year plan for military assistance to Israel being worked out that is expected to be presented to Congress in the fall. The talks with Rice are set to focus on the Palestinian issue, with the secretary of state expected to press Olmert to take advantage of the current situation to show the Palestinians what they can achieve with moderate leadership. This theme was echoed in a briefing State Department spokesman Sean McCormack gave reporters in which he said the crisis in Gaza "underscores the importance of working with those moderate forces in the Palestinian political system that have an interest in a peaceful negotiation; that have a vision for the Palestinian people that is based on greater freedoms, greater democracy, greater prosperity and a Palestinian state." Regarding Syria, government sources in Jerusalem said Olmert would not be seeking a "green light" from the US for holding talks - discreet or otherwise - with Damascus, but would rather raise concerns about Syria's new military buildup. The officials said Olmert still believed Damascus was not interested in opening a genuine discussion with Israel, but merely wanted a "peace process" to help it get out of its international isolation. The officials said Olmert still did not think Damascus was willing to pay the price of peace - an end to its alliance with Iran and to support for Hizbullah and various Palestinian terrorist organizations. Olmert is also likely to express Jerusalem's concern that Damascus has "learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War" and is reshaping its military in Hizbullah's image, concentrating on obtaining and protecting long- and medium-range missiles intended to strike Israel's home front during time of war. Olmert is scheduled to return to Israel on Wednesday. AP contributed to this report.