Prisoner - AP - October 2011
Released Palestinian prisoners flash the victory sign as they make their way through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Photo by AP
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Israel should make a series of gestures to the Palestinian Authority to reduce the damage caused the PA by last week's deal for the return of Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff believes. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's advisers vehemently oppose the idea, as do several members of his forum of eight senior ministers, arguing that PA President Mahmoud Abbas "should be punished" for his unilateral bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

"We don't want the Palestinian Authority to collapse," one adviser said, "but if it happens, it won't be the end of the world."

Next month, the IDF will give the government a list of the gestures it recommends, including releasing additional Palestinian prisoners and perhaps transferring additional parts of the West Bank to Palestinian security control. The army considers this necessary to help Abbas regain the upper hand in his ongoing battle with Hamas for control of the territories, since Israel's intelligence agencies all concur that the Shalit deal, in which Hamas obtained the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one kidnapped soldier, bolstered the Islamic organization at the PA's expense.

One senior Israeli official told Haaretz that Abbas thinks the deal was deliberately intended to strengthen Hamas and weaken him, in order to punish him for his UN bid.

One of the IDF's proposals relates to the second stage of the Shalit deal, in which Israel will free another 550 prisoners of its own choosing. While the list has not yet been drawn up, it seems that most will be low-level terrorists belonging to Abbas' Fatah party, and the army deems the Fatah affiliation critical.

The army also proposes that Israel release additional prisoners beyond these 550 as a gesture to Abbas in honor of Id al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that falls in another two weeks.

Last-minute orders

Another proposal is to transfer part of what is known as Area B - areas of the West Bank that, according to the Oslo Accords, are under Palestinian civilian control but Israeli security control - to Area A, which is under full Palestinian control. Most of the territory the army favors transferring is in the northern West Bank, between Jenin, Nablus and Tul Karm, as this area has few Israeli settlements.

A fourth idea is returning the bodies of slain terrorists to the PA. That was supposed to have happened a few months ago, but was canceled at the last minute on orders from Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Senior PA officials have said in recent days that the principal gesture they want from Israel is the release of Fatah terrorists who have been imprisoned since before the 1993 Oslo Accords. They also said they have had several discussions with Israel recently about transferring additional territory to Area A, but all have gone nowhere.

In the past, Barak has voiced support for far-reaching gestures toward Abbas. But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has consistently opposed the idea and Netanyahu is unenthusiastic. Thus, when the army proposed gestures to the PA in the run-up to last month's UN bid, with the goal of calming the atmosphere and preventing an explosion, the government rejected the proposal.

With the Shalit deal concluded, the IDF is hoping the government will be more amenable. But given Jerusalem's anger at Abbas' statehood bid, that seems doubtful.

The issue is further complicated by uncertainty over Abbas' intentions - a question on which both government officials and intelligence professionals are split. Some believe that Abbas has no interest in resuming negotiations with Israel, preferring to pursue his case at the UN and among the international community in the hope of forcing concessions on Israel. Members of this camp see no point in making any gestures to him.

The IDF, in contrast, thinks Israel must make substantial gestures to bolster Abbas. Minor steps - like dismantling unmanned roadblocks or releasing Palestinian prisoners convicted of crimes other than terrorism - won't suffice, it argues.

The senior Israeli official said the army's concerns were on full display at a briefing for Barak last week given by Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the coordinator of government activities in the territories. Dangot, he said, expressed great concern over the messages he has been getting from senior PA officials recently - namely, that Abbas is depressed and threatening to resign in light of the impasse in negotiations, the boost the Shalit deal gave Hamas and the fear that his UN bid will fail even without an American veto, given his difficulties in recruiting the necessary nine votes in the Security Council.

Over the last two weeks, the Israeli official said, several of Abbas' advisers, including his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, have urged him to disband the PA and hand responsibility for the territories back to Israel. This has strengthened the army's view that gestures to bolster Abbas are needed.

Netanyahu's advisers, however, don't take Abbas' resignation threats seriously, noting that such threats tend to recur frequently. "There's nothing new in this," said one. "He threatens all the time."