Prison raid gives Israel's Olmert a boost

Polls show Tuesday's raid has increased support for Israel's acting PM ahead of national elections.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's controversial raid Tuesday on a Palestinian prison in the West Bank city of Jericho is shaping up as a boost in public support for Israel's interim prime minister, Ehud Olmert, according to the latest polls.

That should be welcome news Mr. Olmert, who has seen his support dwindling ahead of national elections due in less than two weeks.

But the raid has had the opposite effect on support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, further undermining his credibility among Palestinians, and sparking concern among analysts that this could lead to a decrease in cooperation with Israel. "If Abu Mazen [Abbas] continues to have some control, the security cooperation could continue," says Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, expressing concerns about the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations without Abbas at the helm.

Recommended: 7 reasons to be optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Several polls done the day after the jail raid, in which six Palestinian militants gave themselves up after a violent, 10-hour siege, indicated that Olmert's profile as a security hawk has been bolstered by the events.

Olmert inherited the centrist Kadima party from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been comatose since early January. Recent surveys had indicated that Olmert's popularity ratings were sliding such that he might not win more than 40 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

The independent Geocartography Institute showed that Kadima would win between 42 and 43 seats, an increase from 38 the week before.

Other polls showed Kadima maintaining a stable lead, still far ahead of any rivals, particularly the party that would present the greatest challenge: Likud - formerly the political home of both Olmert and Sharon - under the helm of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel denies political motive for the raid

Israeli officials, however, reject suggestions that the operation was aimed at boosting Olmert's popularity. An Israeli military spokesman says the offensive against the prison was entirely based on the fact that Britain's special observers there - who along with the US had agreed to keep watch over Ahmed Saadat, the man held responsible for the murder of an Israeli cabinet minister in 2001 - walked off the job, citing security concerns.

Israel says Abbas has indicated recently he might release Mr. Saadat soon, something the Israelis could not tolerate.

Saadat, his lawyer said Thursday, denies he had a role in the PFLP's [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi, Reuters reported. Israel says he will be tried for murder in a court inside Israel.

Israel continued its campaign against Palestinian militants Thursday, making an incursion into the West Bank city of Jenin. The Israeli army surrounded two houses that were suspected hideouts of Islamic Jihad, another Muslim militant group, and traded fire for several hours with the men inside. One Israeli soldier died in the gun battle, while five members of Islamic Jihad were captured by Israeli forces.

Undermining Abbas

The raid has caused increasing instability in the Palestinian political arena. Angry Palestinians in Jericho, according to various media reports and witnesses, gathered around President Abbas while he was visiting the site of the heavily damaged prison and called on him to resign.

Some Palestinian observers say the Israeli raid bolstered an already well-traced image of Abbas as an ineffectual head of the Palestinian Authority, making more room for the impending leadership of Hamas.

The Islamic militant organization, which controls 74 out of 132 seats in parliament, has been at loggerheads with Abbas over the nature of the incoming government, and has yet to present a cabinet.

Dr. Jarbawi, the political science professor, says that Tuesday's unprecedented raid made it clear to many Palestinians that the Palestinian Authority has run its course.

"Why do we even need an authority anymore?" he asks somewhat facetiously. "It was a tool to end the occupation and build a Palestinian state, a tool for peace negotiations. Why do we need an authority if they [the Israeli army] can enter the jail and strip people of their clothes and humiliate them in front of the world?"

The raid, he says, has furthered weakened Abbas's ability to try to cajole the leadership of Hamas into a position of moderation vis-à-vis Israel. "Abu Mazen," he says, using Abbas's nickname, "cannot now force on Hamas the acceptance of prior agreements because they can say, 'Look at how they treat your agreements.' It was organized in such a way that they pulled the rug out from under him."

Olmert, however, in remarks at the National Police Headquarters the day after the raid, called the operation "brilliant" and "exceptional."

Many of the leading commentators in the Israeli press tended to agree, pointing toward a widespread view of the siege as a success.

But the left-leaning Haaretz in an editorial Thursday pointed out that the raid marks a troubling end to the cooperation and coordination Israeli and the Palestinian Authority officials had managed to maintain on security issues, turning a page on a deeply uncertain future.

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