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Olmert seeks to block spread of Hamas takeover

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

TEL AVIV — As Hamas militants ousted Fatah from its last strongholds in the Gaza Strip last week, Israel is disturbed by the prospect of an Iranian-backed mini-state on its doorstep and is moving to block the Islamist takeover from spilling over into the West Bank.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, during meetings this week at the White House, plans to recommend an enforcement of total segregation of the two Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The Israeli leader already has called for the deployment of a multinational force along the Gaza-Egyptian border to stop Hamas' procurement of weapons that could alter the balance of power between Gaza militants and the Israeli army.

"The long-term goal of the extremists is to upgrade their military capabilities, the model is Lebanon," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, referring to how the Hezbollah militia was able to grow stronger with arms shipments from Iran.

"This is a serious strategic challenge and a threat. We'll want to engage with the international community on how to prevent this upgrade."

Israel's primary concern in Gaza is that the Islamic militants will obtain rockets, which will allow them to strike at strategic targets well beyond the Gaza Strip. It is also worried that Hamas is bulking up its defense in Gaza in a way that will make an Israeli invasion much more costly.

Israel hasn't said what type of international force it wants to see in Gaza. It also hasn't said how it will operate its commercial and civilian border crossings with Gaza with Hamas gunmen controlling the other side.

Avshalom Vilan, an Israeli lawmaker from the Meretz party, said a multinational force needs to include Arab soldiers.

In the West Bank, Israel will have to decide how it can bolster the rule of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who on Thursday declared a state of emergency and dismissed the Hamas-led Cabinet, as a way of containing Hamas' influence there.

On Friday, Mr. Abbas appointed Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-educated independent, as the new prime minister.

After Hamas is fired, Israel as well as the international community might respond by restoring international aid to Palestinian Authority offices in the West Bank and releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in customs money to Mr. Abbas that has been held in escrow since Hamas' rise to power a year ago.

"If Abbas has washed his hands of his government, the world can open up to him in the way that they couldn't with [Hamas Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh in charge. This is an intriguing prospect," said David Makovsky, an Israel specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The Israeli predisposition will be to help [Abbas]."

If Israel partitions the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it runs the risk of playing into the hands of Hamas, he cautioned.

"They want Israel to bear the brunt of the saboteurs of Palestinian nationalism, when it is they that is blowing the two-state solution to smithereens by staging a coup in Gaza."

The Palestinian crisis could prompt Israel and the United States to re-examine their peace process policies and their push for discussions of a "political horizon" for negotiations.

"It will force the chancelleries of the world to rethink the architecture of peacemaking. Clearly Gaza and the West Bank are moving in very different directions," said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. "It's going to be very difficult and extremely challenging for anyone undertaking diplomatic initiatives."

Though Hamas is claiming victory right now in Gaza, there is one upside for Israel, analysts said.

The Islamists face immediate challenges of restoring law and order in the Gaza Strip, and will need to form a political leadership that is capable of averting a collapse of the local economy and a humanitarian disaster. That could force Hamas to behave more responsibly, said Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East specialist.

"The Palestinian people could vent their anger at Hamas," he said.

One Israeli right-wing parliament member said Hamas' rise should take pressure off Israel to move forward in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. "This week's developments have demonstrated [that Mr. Abbas] is too weak to be a partner for talks," said Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Likud party.

"The formula 'land for peace' has become land for terror and land for Iranian influence," he said. "If there will be a Palestinian state, it will be an Iranian-led Palestinian state in the center of Israel."