Olmert aides OK ending ties

Israeli leader's advisers favor cutting contacts with Palestinians except for Abbas


JERUSALEM -- Israel is poised to sever all contacts with the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government except for ties with its moderate president, a senior Israeli official said yesterday.

Such a step would all but rule out prospects for peace negotiations between the two sides in the foreseeable future.

The recommendation to cut contacts with the Palestinian Authority, with the exception of its executive branch, came from Israel's influential "security Cabinet," which is made up of the most senior advisers to acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The full Cabinet is expected to weigh the decision in the coming week, said government spokesman Assaf Shariv.

In related news, the Associated Press reported that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for three months, will be declared permanently incapacitated tomorrow, a decision that signals the official end of his tenure as Israel's leader, the Justice Ministry said yesterday. Sharon, 78, was declared temporarily incapacitated after he lapsed into a coma after a stroke Jan. 4.

Israel has said it wants nothing to do with either the new Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament that was sworn in last month or the Palestinian Cabinet made up largely of followers of the militant group.

Efforts are being made, however, to keep open a channel of communication via Mahmoud Abbas, the pragmatic-minded Palestinian Authority president who was elected separately last year and has expressed the wish to reach a peace accord with Israel.

The new Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has said his government is broke and unable to make this month's government payroll. But Hamas has refused to rescind its formal calls for Israel's destruction - which has led the United States and the European Union to close the spigot on hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

Israel, in a move reminiscent of the era of the late Yasser Arafat, said it would boycott any foreign diplomats who met with Hamas officials. When Arafat was alive, Israeli leaders routinely refused to meet with foreign dignitaries who traveled to his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Hamas has largely observed a yearlong period of calm, but other groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, have continued attacks against Israelis.

As Israel has struck an unyielding diplomatic stance against Hamas, its army has sharply stepped up attacks against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Six Palestinians, most of them militants but also one small child, were killed in Israeli aerial strikes Friday, and eight Saturday. Yesterday, a Palestinian police officer was killed in an Israeli artillery strike in Gaza, according to Palestinian medical officials.

Israel confirmed that it had fired hundreds of artillery shells into Gaza in the past three days in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Israeli media reports said Olmert had told the army to act as it saw fit to halt the firing of homemade rockets toward Israel.

The Hamas leadership and the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Abbas' Fatah movement, made a rare show of unity in speaking out against the Israeli strikes.

Israel is on a high state of alert against attacks by Palestinian militants during the Passover holiday, which begins Wednesday.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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