Israel approves arms for Fatah

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Israel said yesterday it has authorized a shipment of 25 armored vehicles and 1,000 rifles to bolster a promised Palestinian police crackdown on armed militants in the West Bank.

Approval of the shipment, which had been proposed by Russia two years ago but stalled by Israeli opposition, was aimed at building trust with the Palestinian Authority's leaders as Israel prepares to restart formal peace negotiations with them.


Israel also will allow the Gaza Strip to resume strawberry and flower exports that have been blocked since September. The exports earn $14 million a year for the impoverished territory, according to the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce.

Both decisions were announced as Israeli and Palestinian leaders prepared for next week's U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis - an event the Bush administration hopes will lead to a Mideast accord before President Bush leaves office in January 2009.


"The parties have said they are going to make efforts to conclude it in this president's term, and it's no secret that means about a year," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday in Washington. "That's what we'll try and do. Nobody can guarantee that - all you can do is make your best effort."

Palestinian and American officials have been pressing Israel for concessions to improve the climate at the Annapolis meeting, which is intended to muster Arab nations' support for the renewed peace effort.

Israeli opposition leaders and the country's internal security service, Shin Bet, objected to the Russian shipment, arguing that vehicles and weapons eventually could fall into the hands of Hamas and other militant groups fighting Israel.

Hamas gunmen seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah-led police forces in June, capturing large quantities of weapons that other countries had supplied to the police with Israel's approval.

Criticizing the promised new shipment, right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu told Army Radio, "We will one day see Hamas sitting on the armored vehicles, firing at us."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized the arms deal, which also includes 2 million rounds of ammunition. In preliminary peace talks, he has been telling Abbas that there can be no Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank unless his Palestinian police move to disarm the militias of Hamas and other radical Islamic movements hostile to the Jewish state.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.