JERUSALEM – In unusually bold criticism, four former Israeli security chiefs on Friday warned that the country is headed for disaster unless Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) reverses course and moves quickly to settle the conflict with the Palestinians.
The declaration by former directors of the vaunted Shin Bet (search) agency come as Sharon weighs whether to accept a Palestinian truce offer that would not be accompanied by a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups. In the past, Sharon has rejected such a plan.
Israel's security services are reportedly divided, with the military in favor and the current Shin Bet chief opposed. The military believes a cease-fire is a step in the right direction and is ready to minimize operations, including halting targeted killings of Palestinian militants, the Maariv daily reported Friday. The Shin Bet fears armed groups will use the lull to reorganize for more attacks.
Sharon hasn't made a final decision, Maariv said, but the outcome could well determine the direction of the conflict. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) wants to persuade the militants to halt attacks and then get Israel to agree to a truce. Qureia, and other leaders before him, have said they cannot order a crackdown for fear of setting off internal fighting.
Palestinian officials said Friday that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has played a key role in mediating previous efforts at a truce, will travel to the area to meet with Qureia and Arafat on Monday. It was unclear if he would meet with Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search) leaders to ask for their cooperation.
On Friday, though, the spiritual leader of the Islamic militant group 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. "We are willing to listen to any proposal. We will give him answers, but not out of the blue. But in the current situation we can't talk about any cease-fire."
Qureia formed a government earlier this week, ending weeks of political wrangling and setting the stage for a meeting with Sharon. Israel's foreign minister has said the summit could take place within 10 days. However, the Haaretz daily reported that Sharon was in no hurry and would only begin consultations on the approach to the Qureia government after he returns from Italy next week.
The former Shin Bet leaders — Yaakov Perry, Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gilon — spoke in an interview with the Yediot Ahronot daily published Friday. Without a peace deal, they said, Israel's existence is in danger.
"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 was quoted as saying.
The four said Israel needs to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — areas captured in the 1967 Mideast war — even if that means clashes with some of the 220,000 Jewish settlers who've built towns and outposts there.
The former security chiefs 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, including a freeze in Jewish settlement construction.
The views of the ex-Shin Bet directors and the army chief carry considerable weight because of their familiarity with the conflict. They are considered professionals somewhat removed from the heated political debate in Israel over how to settle the conflict with the Palestinians.
The four won praise from Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "It reflects the realistic policy required from the Israeli side," he said.
Sharon's aides declined comment.
With the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan stalled, a number of former and current top officials have questioned Israel's direction in a conflict that has lasted more than three years.
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon said two weeks ago that despite the threat of attacks by militants, the military needed to ease curfews and restricted passage through checkpoints that have generated widespread anger among ordinary Palestinians.
Meanwhile, sponsors of the so-called "Geneva Accord," a symbolic peace treaty negotiated by former Israeli and Palestinian officials, prepared to mail hundreds of thousands of copies to homes in Israel. The copies are to land in mailboxes on Sunday.
One printing press worked round the clock for nearly three days to have the slim blue-and-white pamphlets ready on time. The cost of the publicity campaign is estimated at $666,000, with most of the funds coming from donations. The booklets include the draft agreement and detailed maps drawn up by the two sides.
On the Palestinian side, the draft is to be published in newspapers, since the West Bank and Gaza Strip don't have a developed mail delivery system.