Former security leaders warnIsrael's Sharon of disaster withou
JERUSALEM -- Four former Israeli security chiefs sharply criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies toward the Palestinians on Friday, warning in unusually bold terms that Israel is headed for catastrophe if it does not reach a peace deal soon.
The unprecedented warning comes as Sharon's government weighs how to approach the new government of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. An expected meeting between the leaders would be the first such high-level encounter in months.
The four former security chiefs, respected for their combined 18 years experience as leaders of the Shin Bet intelligence agency, called on the Israeli government to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the only way to avoid more violence after more than three years of fighting.
"It is clear to me that we are heading toward a crash," said Carmi Gilon, one of the group.
Their comments came two weeks after army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon said the government needed to ease restrictions that have increasingly angered Palestinians. Another of the four, Yaakov Perry, said it was no coincidence that those closest to the conflict came to the same conclusion.
"Why is it that that everyone, Shin Bet directors, chiefs of staff, former security personnel ... become the advocates of reconciliation with the Palestinians?" Perry said. "We know the material, the people in the field and surprisingly enough, both sides."
Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, is trying to secure an agreement from Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israelis in anticipation of a broader truce with Israel.
Israel's security services are reportedly divided on whether to accept a truce. The military believes a cease-fire is a step in the right direction and is ready to halt targeted killings of Palestinian militants, the Maariv daily reported Friday. The current Shin Bet chief is concerned that armed groups will use the lull to reorganize for more attacks.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has played a key role in mediating previous truce efforts, will meet with Qureia and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Monday, Palestinian officials said.
It was unclear if he would meet with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders to ask for their cooperation.
But the spiritual leader of Hamas ruled out any prospects for an immediate end to attacks on Israelis.
"We have no objection to any dialogue with the (Palestinian) prime minister," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin told a rally in the Gaza Strip on Friday. "We are willing to listen to any proposal. We will give him answers ... but in the current situation, we can't talk about any cease-fire."
The former Shin Bet directors recommended far more than a cease-fire, saying Israel needed a true peace agreement as soon as possible.
The four -- Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Perry and Gilon -- spoke in an interview with the Yediot Ahronot daily published Friday.
"We are taking sure, steady steps to a place where the state of Israel will no longer be a democracy and a home for the Jewish people," Ayalon told the newspaper.
The Shin Bet is in charge of preventing attacks on Israelis, runs a network of Palestinian informers throughout the West Bank and Gaza and interrogates Palestinian security detainees. The agency also provides security for Sharon.
The group of former Shin Bet leaders said that for its own survival Israel needs to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip even if leads to a clash with some of the 220,000 Jewish settlers who live there.
They said Sharon's preoccupation with trying to halt attacks by Palestinians before agreeing to peace talks is at best misguided, and at worst a ploy to avoid concessions.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat praised the former security chiefs. "It reflects the realistic policy required from the Israeli side," he said.
Former Israeli President Ezer Weizman accused the former Shin Bet leaders of undermining the government, calling them the "four musketeers."
"This really makes me furious," Weizman told Israel Television. "We have a country that is in a very delicate situation."
With peace efforts stalled, a number of former and current officials have questioned Israel's direction in the conflict, and several have come up with alternate plans of their own.
The Shin Bet chiefs discussed a peace proposal written by Ayalon and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh that envisions a Palestinian state in virtually all the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
During the Yediot interview, Perry, Shalom and Gilon added their signatures to a petition calling for the implementation of the proposal, joining 100,000 Israelis and about 60,000 Palestinians.
Sponsors of a separate proposal, the so-called Geneva Accord negotiated by former Israeli and Palestinian officials, prepared to mail hundreds of thousands of copies to homes in Israel. They are to reach mailboxes Sunday.
On the Palestinian side, the plan is to be published in newspapers, since the West Bank and Gaza Strip don't have a developed mail system.