- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

Israeli officials said yesterday that they put off a planned invasion of the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the latest Palestinian suicide bombing for "purely military and operational" reasons and "to give any chance to the peace process."
Top Israeli advisers and leaders who appeared on U.S. talk shows yesterday said they are seeing more evidence of talk of reform in the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said he has written off Chairman Yasser Arafat as a partner for peace.
"I lost any confidence in him as a leading figure for peace," Mr. Ben-Eliezer said of Mr. Arafat on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," but added that the Palestinian chief hasn't "lost his position as a terror leader."
Asked whether he believes Mr. Arafat will ever enter into a peace accord with Israel, the defense minister said, "I doubt it I really doubt it." But he did not rule out another Palestinian leader doing so.
Israel surprised many over the weekend when it called off its planned military attack against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, which is home to 1 million Palestinians. The widely anticipated strike would have been retribution for the pool-hall attack in a Tel Aviv suburb on Tuesday. The massacre, which killed 15 Israeli civilians, occurred just as President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met for peace talks at the White House.
Published reports have cited media leaks and U.S. pressure as factors in Israel's decision not to go forward with the invasion at this time. But Mr. Ben-Eliezer and Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Mr. Sharon, offered other explanations yesterday.
Mr. Gold, in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," denied any foreign influence on the decision.
"No, these were purely military operational considerations," he said. "That is the reason we didn't go in. But we certainly reserve the right to defend the people of Israel if the Palestinian Authority fails to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism in the area under its jurisdiction."
He acknowledged that such an operation would be "risky." Reports in Israeli newspapers indicated military officials were concerned that there could be extensive Israeli and Palestinian casualties in Gaza because of the high concentration of people there.
On CNN, Mr. Ben-Eliezer did not specifically address those reports, but he acknowledged that a mission such as the one planned for Gaza would "cause suffering to both sides."
He said he always directs Israeli troops to minimize civilian casualties on military missions where there are "no other alternatives."
Asked if there is any chance that the Gaza mission will go forward, the defense minister said that "will depend on the other side."
"But I'm ready to say at this stage of the game that I'm willing to give [peace] a chance," Mr. Ben-Eliezer said. "We are ready to give any chance to the peace process."
The defense minister said he's expecting action, not words, from the Palestinian Authority in controlling terrorism against Israelis.
"I hope that things will be controlled by the leaders there in Gaza. I hope to see and to feel that everyone is moving to a quiet period. I will do everything not to be involved with another operation that obviously will cause suffering to both sides."
Mr. Ben-Eliezer labeled Gaza the "capital" of Hamas, the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for the bombing on Tuesday. He also said Gaza was the birthplace of the latest Palestinian suicide bomber, whose identity is known to the Israelis.
The defense minister played down speculation of difficulties in finding many of the Hamas terrorists being hunted in Gaza, because they are in hiding as a result of advance information.
"Sooner or later, [the terrorists] should understand that we'll reach every one of them, unless they decide to change direction," he said.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who also appeared on "Late Edition," was dismissive of Mr. Bush's call for reform within the Palestinian Authority and his proposal for a unified security force to help prevent terrorist attacks against Israelis.
"I hate to say this, but President Bush is a Johnny-come-lately," she said. "The Palestinian people as a whole have been trying to get genuine reform from within."
Mrs. Ashrawi said any reform "has to be homegrown it has to be based on Palestinian priorities with a Palestinian agenda, not an imposed artificial reform in order to suit the Israelis."


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