Analysis: Bush, Olmert, Iran and Palestine

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Israel Correspondent   |   Nov. 10, 2006 at 11:55 AM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will probe the likelihood of the United States providing a nuclear umbrella against Iranian nuclear threats when he meets President Bush in Washington next Monday.

Yediot Aharonot Friday quoted sources close to Olmert as saying he "expects to hear" such a promise from Bush.

A senior Israeli official said this week he was sure Iran's long-term aim is to destroy Israel and possibly control Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Israelis generally think the Iranian threat is an existential one and Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told The Jerusalem Post that the threat itself would make many Israelis leave the country.

"Most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with their families; and Israelis who can live abroad will. People are not enthusiastic about being scorched," Sneh said.

Israel is a small country and much of its population is concentrated near Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, the Mosad spy agency's former director, Ephraim Halevy, Sunday said at the Hebrew University Israel cannot be destroyed "for very many reasons...and (I am not) talking of one specific thing but about a wide variety of things."

A senior U.S. official this week told Israeli reporters he did not believe Israel would attack Iran that has some 200 nuclear sites. It is difficult to believe that all of them can be destroyed in one attack and the worse thing would be if Israel tries and fails, he said according to Ha'aretz.

Sneh seemed to contradict that prediction. He said he did not believe international sanctions would block Iran and added: "I am not advocating an Israeli pre-emptive military action against Iran, and I am aware of all of its possible repercussions... I consider it a last resort. But even the last resort is sometimes the only resort."

On the Palestinian track Olmert is expected to tell Bush that Israel is "positively considering" a Palestinian request to allow a pro-Fatah military force into the Gaza Strip, an aide to the prime minister told United Press International.

The force, the Palestine Liberation Army's Badr Brigade, is based in Jordan and is believed to be riddled with Jordanian intelligence agents, something that should encourage those who, like Jordan, are concerned over the influence of radical groups such as the Islamic Hamas.

The brigade comprises some 1,000 to 1,500 men, according to Fatah spokesman Tawfik Abu Khousa who had been an aide to the minister of interior and national security when Fatah controlled the government.

The idea is to deploy it in Gaza where Hamas has a new force of some 6,000 men. Hamas has the upper hand in Gaza and Israel would like to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who seeks peace.

Over a year ago Abbas asked also for more guns for his men and the United States, which is drawing up a plan to help him, has talked of allowing in some 5,000 to 6,000 guns. Yediot Aharonot said Olmert is ready to allow in a few thousands guns and other armaments that Egypt would provide forces associated with Abbas and Fatah.

Well-informed Israeli sources told UPI there is no decision on the number of weapons that would be allowed in.

Israeli intelligence Brig. Gen. in the reserves and a fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Shalom Harari, predicted such a move might not change much since there are already some 80,000 guns in Gaza. At least 25,000 guns are in the hands of the various security services, and 5,000 in the hands of Hamas' new force.

A prisoner exchange is also on the agenda according to Yediot Aharonot. Olmert is ready to free security prisoners from Hamas and prisoners who "have blood on their hands" and have been in jail for over 20 years.

Palestinian hopes for such a release have sky-rocketed after Hamas and other militants kidnapped Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit and took him to Gaza in June.

Palestinian media has been publishing names of people they think would be released and there are already celebrations over a deal that has not been concluded yet.

Israel is holding some 10,000 security prisoners and former Minister for Prisoners Affairs Sufian Abu Zaida said this week that Shalit is "the only hope to many families of prisoners" that believe the only way to secure the release of people who killed Israelis is by forcing Israel into an exchange.

That is why "there is no public pressure on Hamas, or the people holding the soldier, to release him without releasing prisoners," Abu Zaida said.

Olmert is ready to release "a very large number" of such prisoners but there is no decision yet on the actual numbers, nor on the criteria of who would be freed. A release had been planned in June but was shelved when the kidnapping occurred.

The Egyptians have been trying to mediate but evidently lack clout. A senior government source noted this week that Hamas' demand to increase the number of prisoners Israel would free proves there is no progress in the talks. Moreover, Israel does not want to hand them over to the Hamas-led government.

"Freeing 1,000 prisoners would be a first class strategic disaster...that would strengthen the radical axis and validate the idea that (Israeli) concessions can be gained only through force," a senior government analyst said in Jerusalem this week.

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