IDF Opposes Olmert Plan to Dismantle Checkpoints

Difficulties arose yesterday in implementing the measures that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in their Saturday meeting, when the Israel Defense Forces came out against Olmert's promise to remove some checkpoints in the West Bank and Defense Minister Amir Peretz rejected a specific plan to remove 27 of the approximately 400 roadblocks.

But Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who developed the plan, convinced Peretz to allow him to present it to Olmert today. The IDF will be given two weeks to respond.

In addition, Peretz approved steps that will make it easier to bring Palestinian workers and merchants into Israel.

Olmert promised Abbas that he would "personally supervise" the removal of checkpoints, in order to give Palestinians greater freedom of movement. But GOC Central Command Yair Naveh warned Peretz yesterday that removing roadblocks could be a risky step.

"You are asking me to remove a roadblock, and that damages my ability to thwart a terror attack," said Naveh. "The roadblocks assist in thwarting and preventing the movement of wanted men in the West Bank."

Naveh suggested that instead of dismantling the checkpoints, Israel should decrease the scope of security checks at these checkpoints by examining only some vehicles rather than all of them.

Another suggestion was to open an additional crossing for goods in the northern Jordan Valley, to make it easier for trucks to get to Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank.

Peretz's bureau said that the plan to remove checkpoints has not been completely taken off the table, and it will be synthesized with other plans.

Meanwhile, Olmert is considering freeing Palestinian prisoners as a special gesture ahead of the Muslim festival of Id al-Adha, which will take place next week. Abbas requested such a gesture in his meeting with Olmert, to which the prime minister responded: "You're my guest, and I don't want to tell you no. I promise to look into it."

Channel 2 television reported that Olmert spoke about releasing 20 to 30 prisoners and asked Abbas if such a gesture would help him, or whether it would be better to wait until abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is returned, after which Israel would release a far greater number of Palestinian prisoners.

Olmert raised the issue at the cabinet meeting yesterday as a trial balloon, to find out how ministers would react to a prisoner release ahead of the holiday. Ministers Peretz, Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz supported the idea.

Mofaz said that Israel has made similar gestures in the past, and Peres said that the move would strengthen Abbas and be received favorably by the international community.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday that the Olmert-Abbas meeting "is an important thing, but the main thing is not just a meeting or a lone gesture, but a process of which the gestures are a part."

Livni, who was speaking to Israeli ambassadors serving in Europe, called for further progress and said that moderate Arab and Muslim states should also be involved in the process.

Jack Khoury adds: Noam Shalit, the father of the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, told Haaretz he knows the key to the release of his son is not in the hands of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas but rather in the hands of Hamas. "From the outset we knew that Abu Mazen [Abbas] is not holding Gilad and has no control over his fate. Israel's gesture to Abu Mazen cannot contribute to the efforts to release Gilad on a practical level, but it can cause a change in the atmosphere on the Palestinian street and push in the right direction," Shalit said.

Shalit said that despite the meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas on Saturday, he believes attempts to release Gilad six months after his abduction to the Gaza Strip have produced no results.

Shalit said he had not been briefed on Olmert's talks with Abbas regarding the release of his son, and that yesterday he called the Prime Minister's Bureau and asked for updates.

"I hope that from all these talks good things will come, and I still see the government as responsible for Gilad's return," Shalit said. "This is a soldier who was sent by the state to protect the southern border, and he did not go to Gaza of his own free will to make this or that deal," he added.