President George W. Bush may be in for a rude awakening when he arrives in Israel on Wednesday.
“If President Bush is coming here expecting to talk about [the] Annapolis [summit conference], the Iran report killed it,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
He was referring to a recent American intelligence assessment that concluded that Iran froze its nuclear arms program in 2003 and has not restarted it. Israeli intelligence experts, however, believe that the scale of Tehran’s uranium enrichment efforts and its continued development of long-range ballistic missiles is evidence that its covert nuclear weapons program continues.
“The Israelis thought they were going to Annapolis [to launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks], with the Saudis and other moderate Arab states there to make sure an international coalition led by the U.S. supported it,” Steinberg said.
But the subsequent release of the National Intelligence Estimate by 16 U.S. agencies, he said, has propelled the Iran issue to the top of the agenda in Israeli minds. Steinberg pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced that Iran will be the prime topic of discussion with Bush.
Israel’s response to the report is that its confidence in the U.S. and its promises about security for Israel “have lost their value,” he said, noting that countries are “rushing to do business with Iran because they know the U.S. will not take it seriously.”
Consequently, Israel’s freedom to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program has also been curtailed.
“There is going to be a lot of tension underlying the Bush visit,” Steinberg added. “The president is coming at the highest point of tension between Israel and the U.S. in at least five years. … The Americans think the main [summit] issue is Annapolis. But the issue Bush will be asked about when there is a press availability is Iran. There is no serious Israeli constituency for Annapolis. It isn’t going anywhere and the deaths last week are evidence of that.”
He was referring to the killing last Thursday of two off-duty Israeli soldiers as they hiked in the West Bank with a female companion. The men were gunned down by employees of the Palestinian Authority, one of them a clerk and the other a member of its security force. The soldiers returned fire, killing two of the terrorists during the ambush.
Raphael Israeli, a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the murders only underscored the failure of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party to curb terrorism in the West Bank.
“We see the PLO demanding that Israel cease building in the West Bank while they continue to build and while their security forces financed with aid from Europe and America are shooting Israelis,” he said.
During his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Olmert was quoted as saying that Israel would not implement any agreements with Palestinians until they “take the required measures, with the required intensity, to fight terror groups. … The State of Israel cannot make any changes that may expose it to dangers and create security hazards,” he said.
Fallout From West Bank Killings
This was not the first time a member of Abbas’ security force has been involved in the murder of Israelis, recalled Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Just last month, he said, Ido Zoltan was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank by two Palestinian security personnel. And Hoenlein noted that the terrorist group associated with Abbas’ Fatah political party, the al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, has still not been disarmed even though it continues to be involved in terrorist actions.
“What is required is a demonstration of a commitment on their part to deal with the security situation,” he said. “Not words but deeds [are required].”
Israeli officials have also been quoted as being critical of the way the Palestinian Authority handled last week’s killing. They pointed out that although the two surviving gunmen surrendered to the PA immediately to avoid Israeli capture, the PA only confirmed their arrests after Israeli authorities learned of their surrender and demanded the return of the two soldiers’ stolen weapons. Authorities also dismissed a PA claim that the two slain soldiers were shot while trying to sell their weapons.
Rabbi Yitzchak Neriah, a cousin of one of the slain soldiers, Cpl. Ahikam Amihai, 20, said the woman who had accompanied the soldiers on the hike hid when the shooting broke out and was physically uninjured. He said that after the shooting she ran about 45 minutes before she reached a spot where she could get a connection on her cell phone and call for help.
“She’s not hurt but she’s broken mentally,” he said.
“My cousin had no fear of anything in the world,” said Rabbi Neriah, dean of Or Etzion Yeshiva High School near Ashkelon. “He was so pure and innocent. He loved animals and nature.”
He said the four terrorists drove up to the Israelis in a jeep, had a conversation with them and that Amihai even thanked them in Arabic before he and the others turned to walk away.
“The girl said that before they started shooting they had finished the discussion and when they turned their backs and started to go, they [the terrorists] started shooting,” Rabbi Neriah said.
He noted that the other soldier killed, Sgt. David Rubin, 21, was a next-door neighbor of his cousin and that the young woman was also a neighbor. Amihai was one of five children of Rabbi Yehuda Amihai and his wife, Esther, and a grandson of Rabbi Tzvi Neria, the founder of a network of 60 yeshivas known as Yeshivot Bnei Akiva.
The shooting triggered an angry reaction among some groups in Israel. The YESHA Council that represents Jews in the West Bank was quoted as calling for an end to the mass release of other Palestinian prisoners and increased security measures in the West Bank. And Amagor, a terror victims’ group, asked for the return of the roadblocks that had been removed in the West Bank.
On Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pledged that Israel’s “checkpoints and roadblocks will remain,” although he said two major checkpoints and dozens of unmanned roadblocks had been dismantled in recent weeks.
“There is no chance of waging an effective fight against terror without a real and daily control of the field,” he explained. “The method of roadblocks has proven itself.”
His comments came in response to Abbas’ assertion Israel has failed to fulfill its promise to remove some West Bank checkpoints.
“There are 640 of them in the West Bank, and each time they say they will remove them, or have removed them,” Abbas said. “But I can honestly say that they did not remove a single checkpoint.”
Barak said also that Israel would be watching the PA carefully to see what they do with the killers of the two soldiers.
“These people need to rot in jail until their last days,” he told Israel Radio. “We will see if the Palestinian Authority is opening a revolving door for them and if so, the Israeli Defense Forces and security services will know how to put our hands on them.”
Steinberg said Barak’s comments about checkpoints remaining where they are might also have been designed to preempt an attempt by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure Israel next week to remove some checkpoints in an attempt to bolster Abbas in the eyes of the Palestinian people.
“But U.S. pressure to relax security precautions to make Abbas look good is a non-starter,” Steinberg insisted.