- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

HERZLIYA, Israel — Israel’s defense minister said yesterday that Israeli troops will withdraw from Palestinian areas for 72 hours during next month’s Palestinian presidential election, signaling that a deadly attack on an Israeli army outpost hasn’t stopped fledgling peace efforts.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also presented a sweeping case for coordinating Israel’s planned pullout from the Gaza Strip next summer with the Palestinian leadership. He said broader withdrawals from Palestinian areas could happen well ahead of the Gaza pullout, and a successful arrangement could form the basis of an interim peace deal.

Mr. Mofaz’s comments at an academic conference in the seaside town of Herzliya represented a marked departure from Israel’s initial insistence that the Gaza pullout be carried out unilaterally.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accusing him of supporting violence. But since Mr. Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, Israel has cautiously welcomed the moderate interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Although it didn’t derail peace moves, Sunday’s attack on an Israeli outpost in Gaza that killed five soldiers and wounded five others strained the new atmosphere of good will.

The bombing by the Islamic extremist group Hamas and gunmen with ties to the ruling Fatah movement was seen as a challenge to Mr. Abbas, who has been trying to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israelis ahead of the Jan. 9 election to replace Mr. Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli leaders said yesterday that the new Palestinian leadership is not doing enough to restrain militants and warned that Israel’s patience is wearing thin. “By now, we don’t see any change,” Mr. Sharon said.

Still, Israel’s initial response to the outpost attack was relatively muted. Helicopters fired five missiles at suspected weapons workshops in Gaza City, causing no injuries.

Military leaders said Israel will continue to strike at militants until the Palestinian administration takes action. “We have no choice but to act ourselves,” the military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said at a briefing in Gaza.

The Palestinian election is emerging as an important test for both sides. Israel has promised to let the vote proceed smoothly, while Mr. Abbas, who is the clear front-runner, is seeking a halt in violence.

Israel has said it would do its utmost to facilitate the vote, but Mr. Mofaz’s comments were the most detailed yet on troop redeployment. He said Israeli troops would leave Palestinian towns a day before the Jan. 9 vote and stay out for 72 hours.

Mr. Mofaz added that if the Palestinians crack down on militants, Israel is ready to coordinate the pullout from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements and to make broader concessions.

Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Israeli troops should leave immediately to allow candidates to campaign. He also said Israel should lift travel bans it imposed on Palestinians after the September 2000 outbreak of fighting.

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