Israel gears up for diplomatic offensive

Bush tells Turkish leader: Freeing soldier key to ending crisis.

erdogan 298.88  (photo credit: AP [file])
erdogan 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel is preparing a diplomatic offensive to be launched over the next couple of days to deflect the image abroad that the recent IDF actions have put Gaza on the verge of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The offensive comes on the heels of a sense in the Foreign Ministry that while there was a degree of understanding abroad for Israel's decision to arrest Hamas politicians, including eight cabinet ministers, there is widespread concern that the attacks on the power station in Gaza will lead to a severe humanitarian crisis. The issue will be the top priority for Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni when she travels to Russia Monday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Livni will then continue on to Finland on Tuesday for high-level meetings there. Finland just took over the rotating presidency of the EU. Israel, according to government officials, was satisfied by the degree of international understanding for its recent military actions and the country's right to defend itself. US President George W. Bush stressed on Saturday that the freeing of Cpl. Gilad Shalit was the way to resolve the current crisis. He made this clear in a conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who himself made very critical comments on Saturday about Israel's actions. According to a National Security Council's spokesman in Washington, Bush told Erdogan that "the initial goal should be freeing the Israeli soldier. That is the key to ending the crisis." The White House did not provide information on the Turkish reaction to Bush's statement. US ambassador John Bolton, in an emergency session of the UN Security Council Friday night, was even more adamant in his support for Israel's actions. Bolton placed the blame for the crisis squarely on Hamas. Calling the abduction of Shalit a clear act of terrorism, he said, "The attack and hostage-taking by Hamas last week precipitated this crisis, and their refusal to release their hostage continues to place innocent Palestinians in harm's way." He said it was the responsibility of the Hamas government "to stop all acts of violence and terror and comply with the principles enunciated by the Quartet [the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States]: renounce terror, recognize Israel, and accept previous obligations and agreements, including the road map." While calling on all parties to avoid actions that would escalate the situation, Bolton affirmed "Israel's unequivocal right to defend itself and the lives of its citizens." He also blamed Syria and Iran for fueling the conflict through their support for terrorism. He called on Syria to arrest Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal and "close down the various terrorist headquarters in Damascus." In light of the ongoing attacks on Gaza, Bolton urged "close attention to the humanitarian needs of the population of Gaza, and action to ensure that those needs are met expeditiously." At the UN session, which Arab nations requested to demand that the Security Council pass a resolution ordering a halt to the IDF actions, Palestinian and Israeli diplomats traded accusations. Senior Israeli diplomatic officials, however, expressed satisfaction Saturday night that no such resolution was even circulated to council members. Palestinian UN Observer Riyad Mansour said Israel's air and ground assault on Gaza using warplanes, tank artillery bombardment, and shelling from naval units was "collectively punishing and terrorizing the Palestinian civilian population ... (which) is now under complete siege." Israel's deputy UN ambassador Daniel Carmon countered that Israel responded to the capture of Shalit "after long weeks of Israeli restraint in the face of numerous attempted kidnappings and unceasing Kassam rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip that have targeted civilians, schools and homes" and traumatized children. He said the Israeli army's presence is limited "to a very small area in southern Gaza" with the sole aim of preventing Shalit from being smuggled outside the Gaza Strip. "Its objective is not punishment or retaliation," Carmon stressed. But Mansour accused Israel of planning "a major invasion" of Gaza and mobilizing troops before Shalit was captured on June 25 "to sabotage the recent agreement" between PA President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party and the Hamas-led government, which was aimed "at opening the door for a resumption of negotiations and the peace process." Israel's goal, he said, was "to ultimately cause the complete collapse" of the Palestinian Authority so Israel could say it had no "partner for peace" and go ahead with unilateral measures. Despite the failure of the UN resolution, Israel was not without its critics, even beyond countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and South Africa that could be expected to slam Israeli policies. Turkey's Erdogan blamed Israel for escalating tensions by rounding up Hamas cabinet members and parliamentarians. "I'm having a hard time understanding now that eight Palestinian ministers and more than 50 parliament members and local directors were kidnapped, and I don't see this as ever adding to peace in the Middle East," Erdogan said. "The kidnapping of a soldier is not right - it's wrong. OK, is the price of this eight ministers, does the price of this mean kidnapping parliament members and local directors over there, taking them prisoner?" The Turkish Foreign Ministry also issued a strong statement condemning Israel's actions. "It is impossible for us to accept the arrests of elected ministers and legislators of the Palestinian National Authority or the destruction of the already extremely insufficient infrastructure of Palestine," it said. According to the statement, these actions "feed feelings of revenge and enmity among the young generations and harm possibilities for living side by side in the future." Norway, Sweden and France also criticized Israel. France on Friday called on Jerusalem to free the captured Palestinian ministers and said both sides must move to reduce escalating tensions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said France fears that the situation will "feed an escalation and strengthen the most extreme elements, which is doubtless not Israel's objective." France does not want the situation to lead to "the weakening and, even less so, the disappearance of the Palestinian Authority," Mattei said. "The Israelis must be very vigilant about the consequences of their actions," the spokesman said. "We await the liberation of these political officials." He also said that freeing Shalit would also clearly lead to a deescalation. Senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem were also plainly perturbed by criticism voiced from Sweden and Norway, with one official saying that their criticism - along with their silence regarding the killing of the two soldiers and capture of Shalit last week - gave "new meaning to the term 'double-standard.'" Nathan Guttman and AP contributed to this report