Barak heeds Rice call, reverses course to back PA border plan
- Barak heeds Rice call, reverses course to back PA border plan
By Barak Ravid and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents Last update -
Defense Minister Ehud Barak softened his opposition Monday to a proposal to
transfer control of the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel
to representatives of the Palestinian Authority government headed by Salam
Fayyad. The change, made at the request of U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, is considered a major shift in Israel's policy on this
"When conditions have matured in the future for an end to the Qassam rockets
and the terrorism and a lessening of the smuggling of weapons from Sinai
into the Strip, we will be willing to consider easing the situation at the
crossings into Gaza through cooperation with representatives of the Fayyad
government," said the statement issued by his office.
A senior Israeli government source said that the change in Barak's position
is probably also related to the discussions that Amos Gilad, head of the
Defense Ministry's political-security bureau, is holding in Egypt on a
"package deal" that would include a halt to rocket attacks from Gaza,
containment of the arms smuggling into Gaza and reopening the border
Rice and Barak discussed the crossings and the general situation in Gaza
during their meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, and again at a tripartite
meeting that included PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. She repeated her
request that the defense establishment soften its stance on the border
crossings and look favorably on Fayyad's proposal to transfer control of
them to PA government officials. Rice also asked Barak to issue a public
statement on this matter.
The defense minister agreed, and following a meeting with the visiting Czech
defense minister Monday, his office issued its statement.
The statement was unusual in itself, because until now, Barak has avoided
public statements about the crossings in general and the Fayyad proposal in
Fayyad has been promoting his proposal for opening the Gaza crossings for
several months, and has received broad support from the international
community, especially the United States. According to his proposal, PA
officials who are affiliated with neither Hamas nor Fatah would assume
responsibility for the crossings and reopen them for use, possibly with
Opening the crossings to regular transfers of goods would improve the lot of
the civilians in Gaza. In addition, Fayyad's proposal would enable the PA to
gradually return to the Strip, for the first time since it lost control of
it to Hamas in June last year.
But despite American and PA requests, the Israeli defense establishment
adopted a tough stance toward the Fayyad proposal, arguing that it would
ultimately serve to bolster Hamas. Thus Barak's statement Monday is
considered to be a significant reversal in Israeli policy on this matter,
and most likely stemmed from U.S. pressure.
Ironically, Israeli sources noted, the defense establishment's strong
opposition has made Fayyad begin to have doubts about the plan himself. And
the situation has been further complicated by the absence of complete accord
on this issue between Fayyad and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Meanwhile, Abbas announced Monday that he intends to meet Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert on April 7, thereby ending the hiatus in their regular biweekly
meetings that followed the intense fighting in the Gaza Strip nearly six
During a press conference with Rice in the Jordanian capital of Amman, Abbas
added that he believes it is possible to reach a comprehensive peace
agreement with Israel in 2008.
Rice also met Monday with the heads of both sides' negotiating teams,
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed
Qureia. The two briefed the secretary of state on developments and
difficulties in the talks and discussed ways of expediting the negotiations