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An Israeli decision not to attend next week's summit in Annapolis or the summit's failure could lead to a further decline of the security situation in the Gaza Strip, military representatives said at a security cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

"If we don't go to Annapolis and the status quo is maintained, there will be chaos in the territories," one of them said.

According to intelligence assessments presented in the session, the position of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is weak, and he will have a hard time meeting his security obligations.

"Abu Mazen and [PA Prime Minister Salam] Fayad will disappear and Iran and Hamas will fill the vacuum," the officials said.

The head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, warned that preserving the status quo could give more encouragement to the "one state for two peoples" idea that is gaining popularity in Europe. He said that this is part of a process of delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Major General Ido Nachoshtan, head of the Plans and Policy Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, presented a mapping of Israel's security interests. He noted that "it's important to go to Annapolis now because the American administration is 'invested' in the process and [President George W.] Bush sees these things through a military prism. It's hard to know what will be important to the next administration so it's important to do it now."

"If after the summit there is no positive development and Abu Mazen doesn't get stronger, Hamas could 'leak' from Gaza into the West Bank and fortify existing terror cells there," an intelligence official said.

At the meeting, IDF officers and Shin Bet officials presented scenarios of the day after the summit, provoking criticism from some ministers.

"You can't say that if the status quo is maintained that would be bad, and if there is a [peace] process it will also be bad," Vice Premier Haim Ramon said. "You can't have it both ways. The political leaders must make a decision, and in every decision there are risks, but also opportunities."

Other ministers criticized the military representatives, telling them, "You need to execute policy, not set it. According to what criterion do you decide that it's a failure?"

A confrontation broke out during the meeting between Ramon and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "We mustn't allow ourselves to be accused of failure at Annapolis because we didn't make enough concessions to the Palestinians," said Barak.

In an implicit reference to Ramon's support for discussing at the summit the future of Jerusalem, the state's borders and the refugee issue, Barak said, "Even around this table there are those who are contributing to our being blamed for stubbornness."

Ramon responded, "If we had offered the Palestinians half the things presented at Camp David, but with serious consideration and responsibility, we could go to Annapolis with a document with an agreement on the core issues. Every time we fail to offer what was offered in Camp David, we appear stubborn."

Barak told Haaretz Wednesday night that "I am in much greater coordination with the prime minister and the foreign minister than it would seem from the newspapers, and no less than the best periods of work in the cabinet."

"Some are attacking me from the left, others on the right. The real difference is that I am responsible for security, and it carries obligations. I don't think the prime minister and the foreign minister are unaware of this, and there are meetings and updates on everything, and an attempt to reach a common goal through understanding.

"I think Annapolis is the right thing," Barak said. "The dialogue is desirable for examining the possibility of going toward an agreement. It is also the cabinet's moral duty to the country's fighters and citizens." But he added, "There is a similar duty to do it in a reasoned manner, out of responsibility for security."

Regarding the freezing of construction on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Barak said the cabinet's position is known: No new settlements or large developments should be built, but construction in the large blocs will continue.

The cabinet is committed to evacuating illegal outposts, he added. "We are a law-abiding state, and we will do it, there is no doubt of that."

Barak says Sdot Yam statements still validBarak said Thursday that once the final report of the Winograde Commission investigating the government's prosecution of the Second Lebanon War is published, "we will act as we should, in accordance with my statements at Sdot Yam."

During his campaign for the chairmanship of the Labor Party, Barak told a news conference in Sdot Yam that the commission's damning report on the failures of the war behooves Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to "reach personal conclusions" and to resign his post. Barak declared, "if on March 28, I am elected chairman of the Labor Party, and the prime minister has yet to reach personal conclusions, I will act to form a wide consensus in my party and with the faction leaders to determine an appropriate and agreed date for elections."

"These statements were made and they are still valid, but we must read the report and see what is right for the State of Israel," Barak said in an interview Thursday with Israel Radio.

When broached about next week's Annapolis conference, the defense minister said that the disagreements among government ministers are matter-of-fact and topical. Barak added that once negotiations over the core issues of the conflict begin at a later stage, "we will consider each and every one of the issues in a responsible manner."

Barak also told Israel Radio that if the Palestinians are ready to accept the proposals put forth at Camp David in the summer of 2000, it would be incumbent upon Israel to clinch an agreement. The former prime minister emphasized that the Palestinian leadership's ability to deliver on its commitments will be tested in its implementation of the first stage of the road map, namely in its ability to quell rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

"This talk that says I'm pulling rightwards is far from reality," Barak said. "This isn't a matter of right and left. I'm being attacked from all sides, but those who are attacking me do not bear the responsibility and that is the difference between us."

Barak praised the level of cooperation within the government, which he said is working together in a proper manner, in contrast to the public's perception of a cabinet driven by political considerations and personal tension.