Just Another Empty Threat

There have been calls for cutting off the Gaza Strip's electricity supply for some time now as a response to the frustrating and incessant Qassam rocket attacks. Until recently, however, they were viewed as heavy-handed proposals by ministers on the right. Only after Vice Premier Haim Ramon called for cutting off Gaza's electricity supply two weeks ago, thereby making front-page headlines in Yedioth Ahronoth, was the idea manifested in a cabinet decision.

Yesterday's decision is an attempt by the government to throw a bone to residents of Sderot and other members of the public who are angry at the rocket attacks. But it contains any operational elements, only declarations - namely, the usual threats against Hamas. The electricity supply will continue, at least until a Qassam claims casualties.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are not interested in an escalation in Gaza. They have plenty to do with the tension in the north, and they would like the diplomatic process to continue. They are also not convinced that "a major ground operation" in the strip would, in one fell swoop, solve the south's security problems.

The interesting aspect of the cabinet decision is its timing: It happened on the day U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in the region for talks with Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Once, Israel preferred not to adopt aggressive resolutions when senior American officials were visiting. But while Rice was not enthusiastic about the threat to impose sanctions on Gaza's civilian population, according to one Israeli official who met her, she chose not to make a big deal out of it. She has a more important goal: promoting the upcoming international peace summit in Washington as much as possible.

Rice's main message, which she reiterated during her meetings in Jerusalem yesterday, is that the summit cannot end without substantive achievements. She is not interested in an event that receives a great deal of press coverage but is empty of content - a mere photo op with the president. In principle, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni agrees with Rice, but she warned against raising expectations so high that they end in disappointment.

Rice tends to side with Abbas, who is threatening not to participate in the summit if there is no agreement on the "core issues" and no genuine progress toward establishing a Palestinian state. The Palestinians want a concrete Israeli commitment, but as always, Israel prefers to make general declarations and postpone discussion of the details to a later date.

This disagreement is no cause for panic. The real negotiations have not yet started, and the two months that remain before the summit are an eternity in the world of diplomacy. It is hard to imagine that Olmert and Abbas would dare to insult President George Bush, who initiated the summit, by sabotaging it because of a dispute over the formulation of an agreement of principles. Abbas needs Bush's support to survive in power, and Olmert wants Bush to deal with the Iranian threat.