Analysis: Closure of Gaza Strip Breaches PM's Promise to Rice

Mofaz's advice to shut down Gaza border crossings places Sharon in a difficult position with the U.S.

One of the retaliatory steps recommended by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in the wake of the suicide bombing in Netanya on Monday, is to impose a closure on the Gaza Strip, only allowing the passage of goods via the Karni crossing. The passage of workers via the Erez crossing would therefore be prohibited.

This step contravenes an agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority which allows Israel to shut down a Gaza Strip border crossing for passage only in the wake of an attack or warning directly related to that crossing.

In addition, if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepts this suggestion he would be breaching a promise he gave U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and special envoy James Wolfensohn that Israel would refrain from imposing a closure on Gaza in retaliation to attacks in Israel proper. (This was one of the major sections in the negotiations preceding the crossings agreement).

On the other hand, Sharon's rejection of Mofaz's suggestion would play into the Defense Minister's hands, who has transformed from an ally into a political rival of Sharon's since the crossings agreement was signed. Tension between Sharon and his major ally, U.S. President George W. Bush, will not keep Mofaz, who claims Sharon's deserted throne in Likud, up at night.

The Netanya suicide bombing places security back at the forefront of the public agenda for the first time since Amir Peretz's surprise Labor leadership victory turned all attention to social issues and the early elections set for March.

Shortly before the suicide bomber struck, Sharon gave a speech at the Israel Business Conference that focused entirely on the struggle against poverty. The attack, along with the recently renewed Qassam fire in the western Negev, the over-hyped debate on the Iranian nuclear question and the tension along the northern border, place the focus back on the security issues.

The events overshadow social and economic issues, but at the same time raise some fundamental questions on the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, the achievement which Sharon flies on the flag of his new Kadima party.

Terrorism was the one issue that dominated all election campaigns between the early 80s and the outbreak of the first intifada at the end of that decade, sidelining all other issues, first and foremost the peace process.

Sharon has been depicted as the leader most able to deal with terror, a person who does not compromise and does not give in to the Palestinians.

But his new-old alliance with Shimon Peres, the "architect" of the Oslo peace accords, place Sharon in a new spot, and he is constantly trying to portray himself as a centrist who will implement the road map and renew talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon's old and new rivals from the extreme right and the Likud, led by MK Benjamin Netanyahu, will know how to use what appears to be an escalation in order to paint Sharon as a left-winger. Netanyahu will also take advantage of the bombing to bash his rivals in the Likud chairmanship race, Shaul Mofaz and Silvan Shalom, both of whom supported the disengagement.

On the other hand, the pressure from the right will force Peretz to take a firmer stance on security issues, while embracing prominent figures in the security sector such as former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and former police chief Aryeh Amit.