- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israel wouldn’t automatically reject the Palestinian unity government accord between Hamas and Fatah, even though it doesn’t contain recognition of the Jewish state, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday.

“Israel neither rejects nor accepts the agreements at this stage,” Mr. Olmert said at a weekly Cabinet meeting. “Like the international community, we’re studying what was achieved and what was said.”

By withholding judgment on the agreement reached last week in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, analysts said, Israel is being careful not to rupture ties with Palestinian moderates such as President Mahmoud Abbas just a week before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the region for a three-way summit with Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas.

The Mecca accord has already breached a previously united front among the Quartet of peace-process sponsors — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — to boycott a Palestinian government that refuses to recognize Israel, previous peace agreements or renounce violence.

Worried that sponsors of the peace process might follow the lead of Russia and endorse the agreement, Israel also doesn’t want to risk staking out a position that will be blatantly at odds with the international community.

“Some of the leaders around the world are saying, ‘Hold on, and wait and see what government is formed,’ ” said Gershon Baskin, the head of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

“Secretary of State Rice is very serious about making progress in the trilateral talks, and closing the door on it would look bad,” he said.

Although the Palestinians have not said who will fill the top Cabinet posts, there is wide speculation that the new finance minister will be Salam Fayyad and that the deputy prime minister could be Mohammed Dahlan — two figures with strong ties to the United States and its allies.

Israeli newspapers, meanwhile, have quoted anonymous sources in the Israeli defense establishment suggesting the Mecca accord will boost chances for a prisoner exchange that would free Cpl. Gilad Shalit after more than a half year in captivity in the Gaza Strip.

An agreement that puts to an end the escalating violence in Gaza between the military wings of Hamas and Fatah is in Israel’s interest, wrote veteran military commentator Ron Ben Yishai.

“Armed chaos allows Iran, Hezbollah and al Qaeda to penetrate the territories and boost their influence,” he wrote on the Ynet Web site.

Also yesterday, Israel’s Cabinet gave a green light for renovation work on a bridge leading to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. The construction and an archeological dig sparked a week of Palestinian demonstrations that culminated Friday in the worst riots on the Temple Mount — known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — in years.

Islamic authorities have claimed that Israeli archeological excavations near the base of the Western Wall threaten the foundations under the Al Aqsa Mosque and have sounded the alarm abroad. Israel’s Islamic Movement has appealed to the United Nations to intervene and stop the work.

Defiant at the Cabinet meeting, Mr. Olmert insisted that Israel would not allow the Palestinians to dictate what type of renovation work was permissible in the Old City.

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