Israel's harder line on Gaza complicates U.S. push for talks

Washington wants to bring Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab leaders together for a mid-November peace summit.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday wrapped up another round of shuttle diplomacy in the Bush administration's push to get Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab leaders to come to a US-sponsored Middle East peace summit later this fall. Her trip promises to be first of many as Washington continues to lay the groundwork for the mid-November conference.

But the short distances she traveled while here – moving from meetings with Israelis in Jerusalem and Palestinians in Ramallah – belied the growing divide between how each of the sides sees the road ahead.

On Wednesday, Israel declared the Hamas-run Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" and has made an official warning that it may soon turn off gas and electricity to Gaza as a way to respond to the daily rocket-launches from there without rushing into a full-on military campaign.

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To many Palestinians this step amounts to collective punishment, and may strengthen the Islamic militants Hamas. Israel's approach of trying to engage Fatah in the West Bank and enfeeble Hamas could add to increased suffering that no Arab politician could tolerate, throwing a wrench in the American plan to have Palestinians and Israelis sitting at the table this fall.

Amid mounting pressure to put together an agenda for the peace conference, potentially with participation from Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Israelis and Palestinians are holding to very different viewpoints of what needs to be done first – or if a meeting should be held at all.

Palestinian officials say they see no point in participating without specific achievements in place, while Israeli leadership argues that working with generalized principles is a more realistic and safer approach.

Trying to surf the political waves on both sides, Ms. Rice has been attempting to show equal amounts of understanding for each argument.

On her arrival Wednesday, she said at a press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that Hamas "is indeed a hostile entity, and a hostile entity to the US, as well." In Ramallah Thursday, she insisted that the US had no intention of bringing the parties together to present a veneer of peace.

"We have many other things to do. We don't need a photo opportunity," Rice told reporters at a joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. "We need a meeting that will advance the cause of the Palestinian state," she said. "That is the only reason to have a meeting."

The who, when, and where of the summit are still undecided, US officials acknowledge. But the all-important list of who is coming rides in large part on the question of what's on the agenda. Saudi officials, as authors of a peace initiative that would offer Arab recognition for Israel if Israel can reach a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, have suggested that they might come. Israel is keen to have them, as well as other Arab states that have expressed interest in reconciliation with the Jewish state.

But the Saudis and other Arab leaders are not likely to agree to attend the conference unless there are clear indications of substantive progress on the major issues. When peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down in 2000, they had been trying to tackle some of the thorniest, most enduring points of contention, such as the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugee question, the borders of Israel, and a Palestinian state.

Mr. Abbas said the conference the Bush administration is trying to set up must "give a push to serious negotiations with the aim of ending the Israeli occupation of our land and Arab lands that began in 1967, in conforming with international law, the roadmap, the vision of Bush, the Arab initiative and signed accords."

Palestinians in Fatah worry that the drive to reach real progress with Israel in the next two months will be set back by Israel's move this week to declare Gaza hostile territory. Hamas, which overran Gaza in June, says that the announcement is tantamount to a declaration of war.

But Israel's Minister of Internal Security, Avi Dichter, says that on the contrary, the announcement just changes the legal definition of how it will approach Gaza, which Israel occupied 40 years ago but then withdrew from in August 2005.

"Many people don't believe that Israel finished the occupation of Gaza, but we did," Mr. Dichter said in an Israeli television interview. "This means that we need to deal with this problem in a military way."

Israel has been at a loss as to how to combat the launch of small and roughly made Kassam rockets from Gaza over the border into Israel. Some commentators here suggested that the government's decision was aimed at placating Sderot, the southern Israeli town that is the most frequent target.

The decision to declare Gaza an enemy territory also means that the Israeli defense establishment might be planning a military offensive. But officials here indicated that they would prefer not to see Israel get "bogged down" in Gaza, particularly given tensions to the north. Israel struck at a suspected weapons' site in Syria this month.

Moshe Negbi, an Israeli commentator on legal affairs, says that the government's attempt to change the status of Gaza was ultimately irrelevant in the eyes of international law.

"You cannot escape the rules of international law and the Geneva Conventions, and these prohibit harming infrastructure and other essential services to the civilian population," says Mr. Negbi, who writes a column for Haaretz newspaper.

"As long as Israel controls exits and entrances to Gaza and air space over it, I don't think Israel can say it's not responsible," he says. "At the same time, if the world wants international law to be respected, you need to reform it in order to deal with the fight against terrorist gangs, not armies."

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