U.S. Initiates Security Contacts Between Israel and PA

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - In yet another step towards increased Bush administration involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Secretary of State Colin Powell has arranged a meeting between security heads on both sides.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres also met Palestinian Authority leaders Nabil Sha'ath and Saeb Erekat Wednesday in Athens, where they are attending an international economic conference.

The security meeting, scheduled to take place on Wednesday or Thursday, follows an Israeli bombardment late Tuesday of what the army called "terrorist locations" in the Gaza Strip. More than 40 people were wounded in helicopter air strikes, Palestinian sources said.

The assault came in response to a mortar attack on a small Jewish community in southern Gaza, in which an Israeli toddler was critically injured. Residents said it was a miracle more children weren't wounded as many were playing outside just yards away from where the missiles struck.

"The Palestinian Authority is not taking action to thwart attacks and leaves Israel with no choice but to act consistently and decisively to thwart terrorist attacks," a statement from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said.

The continuing violence has made it more difficult for Israeli officials to justify contacts with the PA. Sharon has been emphatic that he will not negotiate with the Palestinians "under fire."

As such, Israeli officials have been quick to defend the meetings as strictly aimed at halting the violence and not as renewing negotiations.

Senior Sharon advisor, Ra'anan Gissin, said the security talks were dependent on the Palestinians' "approval or arrival."

He said Powell had "initiated and organized" the meetings, designed to "bring about a cessation of hostilities, not negotiations."

In another indication that Washington is being drawn deeper into the conflict, Gissin confirmed a CIA official would sit in on the talks, but as a "non-participant."

Less than a month ago, the U.S. said the CIA's role as a broker in Israeli-PA security talks was ending, as it was more efficient for the two sides to deal directly with each other. It subsequently turned down PA requests to reconsider its position.

In Athens, Peres defended his meeting with PA officials, saying that it was intended to bring about an end to the violence and not to negotiate on political matters.

He characterized it as an "exchange ideas about what needs to happen - opinions, differing opinions, but not negotiations."

"Speaking within the framework of security talks, [we] will arrive at a ceasefire and the way will be opened for political negotiations," Peres said in a radio interview.

After the two-an-a-half hour meeting, Peres said that the three had discussed measures to ease the economic plight of the Palestinians. Erekat said the need to implement agreements signed earlier was also discussed. But asked if there had been a breakthrough, Erekat replied that he did not want to raise hopes.

Meanwhile an opinion survey conducted in recent days suggests that Sharon has widespread support at home for his policies.

More than 70 percent of those surveyed by a peace research center at Tel Aviv University said they considered themselves supporters of the peace process.

At the same time, more than 70 percent also support the policy of closing the borders between Israeli- and PA-controlled areas, for security reasons.

Some 78 percent backed Sharon's policy of not entering into negotiations with the PA until violence stops completely.