Israel Update for September 2006

Continued from page 2

Earlier in the month, the embattled Defense Minister had attempted to shift responsibility for the war's widely perceived mishandling to his political predecessors, including several former defense ministers who sit with him in the current cabinet. In an interview with the mass circulation Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Peretz said he "cannot understand why those who should have prepared, trained, established, and defined the rules concerning the threats to the country are forgiven, while charges against me are exaggeratedly grave."

Analysts said the Peretz was apparently referring in particular to Shaul Mofaz, who served as defense minister under Ariel Sharon's Likud government and is now Olmert's deputy Premier and Transportation Minister, and to Labor's Benyamin Ben Eliezer, the current Infrastructure Minister.

Although both former army commanders refused to publicly answer the serious charges, political analysts said the comments demonstrated just how weak and internally divided the Olmert coalition had become in the wake of the indecisive war.

Set The Captives Free

As IDF forces continued to be withdrawn from southern Lebanon in September-replaced by United Nations peacekeeping forces arriving from various countries around the globe, including Turkey and China-Israeli officials revealed that Hizbullah's July 12th abduction of two reserve IDF soldiers was actually the fifth attempt by the Shiite Lebanese group to kidnap Israeli soldiers. The first incident, in October 2000, led to the deaths of three soldiers during an attack in the upper Galilee. Three additional kidnapping plots were subsequently thwarted by Israeli forces.

In May of this year, Israeli intelligence learned of a plan by the radical Muslim group to carry out an attack against an IDF patrol at the very same location where the July abductions occurred. However beefed up army forces prevented the plot from being carried out. At the time, Israeli government officials were said to have warned their American and French counterparts that any actual kidnappings would spark a full-scale IDF military response.

They assumed that this warning would be passed on to Lebanese government officials who would in turn inform Hizbullah leaders. As I reported in the July news review, IDF blueprints for a major operation against the extremist militia had been on the shelf for several years, with former PM Ariel Sharon determined to deal with the growing Hizbullah threat at some point.

United Nations chief Kofi Annan announced in early September that he was appointing an unnamed diplomat to carry out behind the scenes negotiations to secure the release of army reserve soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. However he warned that he would abandon the effort if any other parties attempted to intervene in the discreet diplomacy. The envoy was set to begin negotiations with Israeli and Lebanese officials about a prisoner swap that would reportedly include Samir Kuntar, serving multiple life terms in an Israeli jail for the 1979 murder of three Israeli civilians and a policeman in the border town of Nahariya. Israeli officials denied that Kuntar would be set free, as demanded by Hizbullah.

Meanwhile the Middle East media was abuzz throughout September with reports that Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier captured by Palestinian infiltrators next to the Gaza Strip on June 25th would soon be set free in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. However it soon became clear that the release was not dependent on Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who seemed eager to end the affair which has led to the deaths and injuries of several hundred Palestinians in ongoing IDF operations inside the Gaza Strip. Instead, Shalit's fate was apparently in the blood-stained hands of overall Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who operates out of Damascus. Analysts said Mashaal appeared to be under intense pressure from Syria and Iran to hold onto the kidnapped 20 year old soldier in order to halt attempts by Abbas to restart long frozen peace talks with Israel.


Although Mahmoud Abbas announced mid-month that a new Palestinian unity government would soon be formed, linking the militant Hamas movement with his once dominant PLO Fatah party and joined by several smaller political groupings, the plans ran into fresh roadblocks as the month wore on. The main sticking point was the seeming Hamas inability to actually back away from its 1988 founding charter's call for Israel's complete annihilation and replacement by a Palestinian theocratic state ruled by Islamic shariya law.

Al-Ayam, the official PA newspaper, confirmed on September 18th that "apparently irreconcilable differences" had emerged between Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh over the "basic guidelines" of such a unity government. Ahmed Yousef, a top aide to Haniyeh, later confirmed that "there won't be a unity government if Hamas is asked to recognize Israel."

Abbas admitted late in the month that talks to form a unity coalition had "fallen back to square one."

The stalemate came after Israeli officials, backed by the United States, made clear that any such government would have to openly accept the three conditions set out by the road map international quartet group earlier this year after Hamas took over the reigns of power-complete renunciation of terror, recognition of Israel's permanent right to exist, and acceptance of all previously signed peace accords between the PLO and Israel.