The Israeli assault on a Palestinian jail in Jericho Tuesday to arrest the alleged mastermind of the 2001 assassination of an Israeli minister has increased the political standing of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just two weeks before elections, according to Israeli analysts.They also said the siege foiled Hamas’ effort to portray itself as the liberator of Palestinian prisoners.
"Hamas had planned to release [Ahmed] Sa’adat and his colleagues in a giant media event," said Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and an Arab specialist.
Sa’adat, who allegedly ordered the killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, is also a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
"They had planned to call all the TV stations in the world, and they wanted [incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh to open the gates of the prison and kiss and hug them as they were released from the jail," Kedar added. "The PFLP would then have been obliged to join his government and it would have compelled Fatah to also join. And Hamas would have come out as the hero of the Palestinians, as the only one who could bring about the freedom of Palestinians, and hinting that it would release others in Israeli jails."
Kedar said Israelis were aware of the plan because the scenario was actually published a few weeks ago in the Palestinian press.
The assumption on the street in the Palestinian territories, Kedar said, is that Israeli troops were tipped off by American and British observers before they left their positions at the jail for fear of their safety. The observers had been posted there as part of a deal in which Israel allowed the Palestinians to imprison the men.
Olmert has insisted that he was not given advance notice of when the observers would leave. But Israel acknowledged receiving a copy of a letter the U.S. and British governments sent last week to the Palestinian Authority in which they complained about the conditions at the jail and the failure to provide proper security for the observers.
"Israeli troops were around Jericho for the past week with all of the equipment, including bulldozers and tanks, to face every possibility and with the directive not to let these people out" of the jail, Kedar said. "The Israel Defense Forces had whatever was needed."
The way in which Israeli troops handled the situation won praise from Israelis on all sides of the political spectrum. No Israelis were killed in the 10-hour siege; one Palestinian prisoner and one Palestinian guard were killed.
Retired Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild, a former coordinator of Israeli government activities in the Palestinian territories, said Israel’s decisive action helps Olmert because it "shows him to be ready to make tough decisions."
One mistake that was made, however, was allowing the media to take pictures of the prisoners stripped to their underwear as they were led from the jail, Rothschild said.
"That is an insult to Palestinians, and a lot of them will try to do something to take revenge," he said.
Kedar noted that Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, "was forced to praise [Olmert’s handling of the situation], but he did it in a half-tone. He gave credit to the IDF and the police who carried it out, and he did not mention the government."
On Wednesday, Netanyahu tried to shift the issue to his own advantage, reportedly saying, "One successful operation does not change the fact that Ehud Olmert is planning to give up 95 percent of the West Bank. Olmert’s strategic plan is wrong and dangerous, and this is the issue the Israeli public will vote on. Every voter should ask himself whether is he willing to support such a significant withdrawal."
But Kedar said the arrest of the men at the jail bolsters Olmert’s credentials because before this "he was looked upon as someone who was not as powerful as [Ariel] Sharon from a personality point of view. This event demonstrates that he is someone who can decide something and carry it out.
"Maybe the events pushed him to be more determined," he said.
Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University, said that although Olmert’s action may have "blocked the continuous decline in the number of seats" Kadima might win (some polls showed the party slipping from winning 38 seats to 30) it is "very far-fetched to say that Kadima is not going to be the largest party. Also certain is its control over the center [of the parliament] and the ability to block a majority of all the parties to the right of it."
The PFLP vowed revenge for the arrests, and Israel was placed on a heightened state of alert. Rothschild said he was certain that the PFLP will "try to do something in Israel or the territories."
"They have been the nastiest [terror group] until now," he said. "Maybe they will try to kidnap a soldier and say that if Israel does not release those it is holding, it will shoot the soldier. That is the sort of thing they can do and will try to do."
In the wake of the jail assault, Palestinians went on a rampage throughout the territories, shooting at a U.N. convoy, going room-to-room in hotels in Gaza and eventually kidnapping 10 foreigners, and damaging British and American property. Within hours, all but one kidnapped victim had been freed.
"We are starting to see exactly the kind of thing we had been warning against," said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York. "This is the first day of anarchy in the Palestinian territories as the [power] of the Palestinian Authority draws to an end and the Hamas government is being established. Unfortunately this anarchy will continue because Hamas cannot be a legitimate and proper government. There will be warlords and chieftains and various terror groups, and there will not be a legitimate government ready to live in peace."
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it is not clear to him whether the Palestinian violence "is a blip or an upward turn."
"It’s impossible to say," he said. "My guess is that Israel will crack down in the lead-up to the election at the end of the month. Whether that creates a series of reprisals or counter reprisals I have no idea."
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Palestinian violence demonstrates that even if Israeli settlements are removed from areas of the West Bank, as Olmert has proposed, Israeli troops cannot be withdrawn.
"The Israeli army will not be able to withdraw because of the potential threats that exist," he explained.
But Stephen Cohen, a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum, blamed the U.S. and Israel’s decision to refuse to talk to or have any contact with a Hamas government for "bringing about the realization of the worst-case scenarios. We are moving so fast to violence that we are creating conditions in which violence will again become the norm.
"We have to talk to their heads before we hit their heads and listen to their mouths before we slap their mouths," he insisted. "The British should not have pulled their monitors. What is going on is that people are not willing to expend energy to risk their lives to make peace, but are quite willing to make war. The monitors should have stayed until there was a resolution both sides could live with."
Cohen said there is a "growing deterioration which is very dangerous … [because] the West has no idea how to deal with the emergence of Islamic militants in anything but a military manner."
Asked how Israel could talk to Hamas when Hamas refused to recognize Israel, Cohen replied: "You have to talk to produce the condition of recognition."