Four former Israeli security chiefs sharply criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies toward the Palestinians on Friday, warning that Israel is headed for catastrophe if it does not reach a peace deal soon.
The quartet, respected for their combined 18 years experience as leaders of the Shin Bet security agency, called on the Israeli government to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The joint criticism from a group of men with deep knowledge of the conflict with the Palestinians takes the increasingly unpopular Sharon to task not from the perspective of morality, but from that of security, where he has long appeared invulnerable.
"It is clear to me that we are heading toward a crash," said Carmi Gilon, one of the group.
The four -- Yaakov Perry, Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom and Gilon -- spoke in an interview with the Yediot Ahronot daily published on Friday.
"We are taking sure, steady steps to a place where the state of Israel will no longer be a democracy and a home for the Jewish people," Ayalon told the newspaper.
Their comments came two weeks after Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon said the government needed to ease restrictions -- despite the threat of militant attacks -- that have increasingly angered ordinary Palestinians.
Perry said it was no coincidence that those closest to the conflict came to the same conclusion.
"Why is it that that every one, Shin Bet directors, chiefs of staff, former security personnel -- after a long service in the security organizations -- become the advocates of reconciliation with the Palestinians?" Perry said. "We know the material, the people in the field and surprisingly enough both sides."
The Shin Bet is intimately familiar with the conflict. It is in charge of preventing attacks on Israelis, runs a network of Palestinian informers throughout the West Bank and Gaza and interrogates Palestinian security detainees.
The group of former Shin Bet leaders said that for its own survival Israel needs to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip even if leads to a clash with some of the 220,000 Jewish settlers who live there.
Meanwhile, amid efforts to revive peace talks, Islamic militant groups have shown a willingness to respect a Palestinian ceasefire with Israel, a Palestinian official said yesterday.
Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said militant factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were open to the idea of a ceasefire as long as it came with Israeli assurances that it would halt military operations in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have been trying to get back to peace talks, preparing for a possible summit in the coming days aimed at renewing stalled progress on an American-sponsored peace plan. And an Egyptian mediator was to arrive in the region tomorrow to try to persuade Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israelis.
The new Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is trying to encourage violent factions to sign on to a ceasefire, to replace a truce that collapsed over the summer.
Under the previous truce, militants agreed to a unilateral, temporary halt to suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis.
Shaath, the foreign minister, said yesterday that Hamas and Islamic Jihad were now looking for assurances that a truce would also be observed by Israel, but were supportive of the idea of an open-ended ceasefire.