Israel Suspends Convoy Deal; U.S.: Buses Must Run

Israel objects on security grounds; deal enabling Palestinians to move between Gaza, W. Bank set for Dec. 15.

Citing security considerations, Israel told international representatives Friday that it has no intention of implementing the agreement allowing bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank until "better times."

During a Friday afternoon briefing for representatives of the international community in Tel Aviv, Brigadier-General Eitan Dangot, who is IDF liaison to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and Major General Yossi Mishlav, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, added that anyway there was no chance that the convoys could begin operating on the agreed-upon date (December 15) since Israel needed at least one week to make the necessary preparations.

At this stage, Israel has no intention of renewing talks with the Palestinian Authority on the matter.

But C. David Welch, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told international representatives that the Americans are determined to see the convoys run by December 15, as called for in the agreement.

Senior Palestinian officials say they received similar indications from the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles. Israeli government sources fear that freezing the convoy deal could torpedo next week's London conference on the rehabilitation of Gaza in the wake of Israel's withdrawal and thus nullify the benefits Jerusalem had gained as a result of the disengagement plan.

Mishlav and Dangot also argued that the Palestinians are not abiding by the terms of the Rafah crossing agreement, warning that Israel will significantly intensify security checks at the Erez and Karni crossings unless the Palestinians begin honoring their obligations by Sunday.

At a meeting held by Quartet representatives in Jerusalem on Friday morning, American officials made clear that the Palestinians are honoring their end of the Rafah deal, and that the disagreements stem from technological matters that the Israelis raised as part of new demands.

The Quartet's Mideast envoy, James Wolfensohn, who spent a long time mediating the deal, has said that Israel cannot be allowed to close the Gaza border crossings in reaction to terror attacks that do not emanate from the Gaza Strip.

The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli threat, saying the Palestinians were working to address all issues at Rafah as quickly as possible with the help of the European monitors.

"The Rafah terminal has been functioning for two weeks only, and anybody with a sane mind should not expect the border between Germany and France," he said, adding that the Europeans and not Israel should be the judges of Palestinian compliance with the agreement.

Israel's security-political cabinet decided earlier this week to suspend talks with the PA on operating the bus convoys, despite an agreement reached last month in talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

According to the agreement, the bus convoys were slated to start operating next Thursday, and truck convoys were to begin in mid-January. The Prime Minister's Office said it notified the U.S. of its decision to suspend talks on Tuesday, shortly after the senior ministers approved the move, which had been recommended by security officials in the wake of Monday's suicide bombing in Netanya.

In the cabinet decision, the ministers had said convoy talks would be renewed only after the PA fulfilled its obligation to act against terrorists.

Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz on Saturday said that Israel has no plans to put Palestinians under an "economic siege."

Speaking in an inverview on Israel Radio, Mofaz denied a television report on Friday that he would order the blocking the movement of Palestinian goods out of the Gaza Strip if PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas failed to disarm militant groups.