Barak Confirms Transfer of Armored Vehicles to PA

Defense Minister meets Fayyad, says important to advance talks; Netanyahu: Armored vehicle deal 'mistaken.'

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday he had agreed to the transfer of new vehicles and equipment to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' security forces as well as to the easing of travel restrictions for West Bank residents.

Citing fear of militant infiltrations, however, Barak signaled he would continue to resist Palestinian and Western demands for mass removals of checkpoints and roadblocks that restrict travel and trade within the West Bank.

"The list of steps we intend to take to make life easier for the Palestinians, without relinquishing our overriding security responsibility, is important in moving the negotiations forward and maintaining a positive atmosphere," Barak told reporters before talks at his Tel Aviv home with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Israel hopes the measures, announced ahead of a weekend visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will help blunt complaints it was not doing enough to bolster U.S.-backed peace talks and Fayyad's "law and order" drive in the West Bank.

Barak said the roster included equipment for Abbas's forces, including his elite Presidential Guard, and new vehicles, some of them armored. Barak's office said he discussed the items with Fayyad but no details were provided regarding types or amounts.

Previous shipments for Abbas' forces have been supplied by European and Arab donors, and were at times held up by Israel.

"The talks [with Barak] focused on implementing the road map obligations as well as security and economic conditions in the Palestinian areas," Fayyad's office said in a statement, referring to a 2003 U.S.-sponsored plan for a Palestinian state.

A Palestinian official said Barak was "forthcoming" on issues like roadblocks and deployment of Abbas' forces. But the official said Fayyad would not immediately elaborate further, preferring to see if Israel was serious about implementation.

Earlier Wednesday, Opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the decision to transfer additional security equipment to the PA's forces.

"The idea that we will give guns, armored vehicles, and ammunition to the Palestinian Authority as it exists today - and these weapons will even protect us - is not only mistaken, it is foolish," the Likud Party chairman told a Jerusalem conference on public policy. "These weapons will be turned against IDF soldiers far sooner than we thing."

"The idea to hand our security over to the Palestinian Authority has failed in the past in Gaza, and it will fail in Judea and Samaria," he continued. "The weaponry that is currently in Hamas' hands came in part from our caches. We need to prevent a similar thing from happening in the West Bank."

The defense minister announced on Tuesday that he has approved the entry of 600 Palestinian policemen into Jenin, where they will engage in routine law enforcement. The policemen are currently undergoing training in Jordan.

In addition, Palestinian police will receive Kalashnikov rifles, rubber bullets and night-vision equipment, according to Army Radio.

The American officers responsible for monitoring Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the road map peace plan recently criticized the Palestinian Authority's counterterrorism efforts.

However, they have also demanded clarifications from Israel about its failure to carry out its road map obligations, which include a freeze on settlement construction and the dismantling of illegal West Bank outposts.

Barak and Fayyad meet regularly to discuss security issues, and their talks are an integral part of U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which the sides hope will produce a final agreement this year.

Palestinian officials said Tuesday that Israel should do more to ease life for Palestinians, such as removing roadblocks, dismantling West Bank settlement outposts or releasing prisoners.

As part of the peace process, the Palestinians have pledged to crack down on militant groups.

While Fayyad says he is capable of reining in gunmen, Israel has maintained a large troop presence throughout the West Bank since fighting began in 2000, saying Palestinian forces are not yet ready to take charge.