- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Whenever Middle East antagonists make a move toward conciliation, raising faint hopes in the region that war may become a thing of the past, the gods of war re-emerge lest peace inadvertently set in.

Only days after Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel peace prize, brought together Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the second Petra conference of Nobel laureates, events on the ground have pushed both sides to the brink of war.

At the invitation of King Abdullah, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas were persuaded to make the short journey to Petra and hold a preliminary encounter, at the end of which the two Middle East leaders promised to hold a summit meeting within the next few weeks where serious issues would be discussed.

If Israelis and Palestinians found it hard to agree on anything in the past, this time both sides acknowledged the Petra breakfast meeting was the most positive step toward peace since Hamas was voted into power in the Palestinian territories.

In fact, Prime Minister Olmert admitted as much later to a gathering of Nobel laureates, carefully selected guests and small group of journalists assembled under a large tent. “This is a serious step forward,” said the Israeli prime minister. And despite Mr. Olmert’s harsh stance on the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, it did seem to be a baby step in the right direction.

But no sooner had Messrs. Olmert and Abbas crossed the Jordan River back to their respective homes than violence erupted once again between Israelis and Palestinians — this time with renewed vigor.

Following the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants Israel massed troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers along its border with Gaza and threatened to re-invade the territory. The Israeli air force went into action, bombarding buildings housing members of Hamas. They destroyed bridges and a power station, leaving much of Gaza in the dark. Palestinian leaders called Israel’s action “collective punishment.”

By the weekend, Israeli attack helicopters had launched two missiles into the office of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, setting it ablaze — a clear indication Israel holds Hamas responsible for abduction of the Israeli soldier. The missile attack on the prime minister’s office also indicates the steps Israel will go to in order to secure its soldier’s release.

Israel does not rule out targeting “higher-caliber targets,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz told a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, inferring that Israeli security forces maybe go after senior Hamas officials. This places the Damascus-based military branch of Hamas within striking distance of Israel’s security and military apparatus. Israel has indicated in the past that Prime Minister Haniyeh could be targeted for assassination.

And as a warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israeli warplanes buzzed his residence in central Damascus in the middle of the night last week as a reminder that Syria and its leaders are not out of reach.

The Palestinian gunmen who abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit are believed to be following the orders of Hamas’ Damascus-based political chief, Khaled Mashaal.

Meanwhile, for the last week Israel’s navy, air force and land forces, supported by tanks and armor, have pounded Gaza hoping to convince the Palestinians to return kidnapped soldier Cpl. Shalit, who was seized during a raid across the border by Palestinian militants during which two Israeli soldiers were killed.

Israel responded by sending thousands of troops into Gaza, the first incursion into the Palestinian territory since Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip nine months ago.

Hamas demands release of some 1,000 prisoners held by Israel — particularly women — in exchange for Cpl. Shalit. Israel, however, refuses to negotiate with Hamas, saying they will be blackmailed. “Giving in today would be an invitation to the next act of terror,” Mr. Olmert told his Cabinet. Hamas cautioned Israel of the risk in escalating the situation, warning that “people will die.”

Pressure on Syria to intervene and convince Hamas to release the abducted Israeli soldier is mounting from all sides.

Officials in Washington, as well as Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, have tried to convince the Syrian president of the dangers in allowing the situation to escalate.

It remains to be seen if Syria will heed the advice of Washington and Cairo, or that of the gods of war.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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