Israel Halts Removal of West Bank Roadblocks After Army Objects

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will announce a series of steps at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit today to bolster Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the emergency government headed by Salam Fayad.

The summit hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will also be attended by Jordan's King Abdullah as well as Abbas.

"We must prevent Abbas from taking steps backward, in spite of the growing pressure on him to resume the partnership with Hamas," a senior political source in Jerusalem said yesterday.

Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin warned the cabinet that "it is not inconceivable that in a few weeks we will find ourselves faced with a Mecca B agreement." Diskin was referring to the Hamas-Fatah unity government deal mediated by Saudi Arabia in February in Mecca.

In Israel, yesterday's statement by Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, that his country will no longer mediate between Fatah and Hamas, was well received.

Olmert will present Abbas with a package of benefits that the cabinet has authorized. At this stage the package does not include the lifting of roadblocks and other restrictions on Palestinian movement.

In their reports yesterday to a meeting of Olmert, Foreign Ministry Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, most security chiefs opposed lifting the roadblocks and recommended that the travel restrictions remain unchanged until it is possible to better evaluate security conditions in the West Bank.

The security chiefs said they are concerned about Hamas' plans to carry out suicide bombings and that they consider the restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank to be the most efficient way to prevent this.

Barak asked for more time to evaluate the situation.

During yesterday's meeting with the security heads, the prime minister showed frustration: "We have a crazy cycle here. If you do not lift the roadblocks, Abbas will head back into the arms of Hamas - and you are told that you did him wrong. On lifting the roadblocks, you [the security chiefs] say to keep the situation frozen. We must find a median path."

The security chiefs expressed concern that during his visit to Washington last week the prime minister had promised the Bush administration that he would lift the roadblocks.

A political source said Olmert had promised President George W. Bush that he would examine this possibility.

At the conclusion of yesterday's deliberations, Olmert said he would like to ease the travel restrictions on the Palestinians, especially between the cities in the West Bank. But he also said he hopes to refrain from telling the security establishment which roadblocks to lift.

Olmert said a team headed by Barak should evaluate the situation and make recommendations on which roadblocks to remove.

Israel will undertake the following to bolster Abbas:

b Release of PA funds collected by Israel in the form of customs duties and VAT. The funds will be released in a number of installments in "agreement with the PA emergency government" and while ensuring that none of the money is given to militant groups.

b Continuation of humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip - water, electricity, food, medicines, medical services and the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing (which connects Israel, Egypt and Gaza) to the passage of people and cargo.

b Reissuing VIP cards to Palestinians, and expanding the permits to Palestinian businessmen wishing to cross into Israel.

b Allowing the transfer of armored cars to the Fatah forces in the West Bank.

b Renewed security cooperation in the West Bank.

b Resumption of the work of the combined security committee - Israel, Egypt, PA, U.S. - particularly in efforts to curtail arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip from Sinai.