Shalom, Olmert Back Ya'alon Call to Ease Restrictions

A source associated with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday that Shalom was in agreement with Israel Defense Forces chief Moshe Ya'alon's statements regarding the need to substantially ease restrictions on the Palestinian population in the territories, Army Radio reported.

However, the source added that the way Ya'alon worded his statements may have been problematic.

The radio also quoted Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert as saying that Ya'alon's stand was legitimate and that he should be able to express his opinions in the appropriate manner.

European officials were puzzled that the IDF chief, who is generally expected to present a hawkish viewpoint, expresses views that are more rational, humanistic and moralistic than the government's, Israel Radio reported Thursday.

Senior officials close to Ya'alon suggested earlier that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aides, in advising him to criticize the IDF Chief of Staff, were trying to divert public attention away from Sharon's police questioning on bribery suspicions due to take place Thursday, Army Radio reported.

The Prime Minister's Office said that Sharon will make do with the meeting held between Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Ya'alon on Wedneday and will take no further action in the matter, Israel Radio reported Thursday.

Sharon spoke Wednesday with Mofaz, and expressed his anger at comments made by Ya'alon, who was quoted in the Wednesday editions of several newspapers as backing criticism of the government's policy toward the Palestinians.

Ya'alon said that Israel's treatment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was mistaken, and that Israel contributed to the fall of the Palestinian government by not making enough good-will gestures. The Prime Minister's Office was furious at the Chief of Staff's comments, calling the comments "extremely serious."

One source in the PMO said that, given the severity of the comments, Ya'alon's only way out would be to apologize or resign. "Ya'alon never made his opinion known in any of the discussions that we held, and despite the fact that every door remains open to him, he chose to speak to the press. Beyond that, his claims are not correct."

Another source in Jerusalem said that Ya'alon had never advocated more concessions for Palestinians. "Why criticize the political echelons," the source said, "when it merely carried out the army's recommendations? During Abbas' tenure as prime minister, Ya'alon did not back those top officers who advocated relaxing the curfews, but backed the more hard-line approach put forward by the head of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter."

In a meeting between Ya'alon and Mofaz on Wednesday, Ya'alon said that he did not intend for his comments - made before a forum of senior journalists and commentators on Tuesday night - to be presented as they were. He added that he convened the briefing to explain to reporters the source of the differences of opinion between the military and the government on the issue of easing conditions for the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza. He stressed that he had no intention of criticizing the government.

So far, Mofaz has not taken any action in response to the incident. After the meeting between Mofaz and Ya'alon, IDF spokeswoman Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron issued a statement in which she stressed that "no uniformed officer has expressed criticism of the government. The articles reflect fundamental deliberations within the army, in light of a complex reality." Yaron added that "the IDF is subordinate to the political echelons, and carries out its orders exactly."

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry were up in arms on Wednesday morning, following the publication of the quotes. The articles were another stage in the ongoing tensions between Mofaz and the IDF's top brass, although Wednesday's publication was seen as a direct attack by the IDF on the government's policy.