By Adam Entous
JERUSALEM, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Western and Israeli officials are exploring whether sending an international force to the Palestinian territories could overcome Israeli security concerns to remove one of the main obstacles to peacemaking.
Some advisers close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert see a big international force as possibly the only way to satisfy Israel’s security needs during the time it would take to create a Palestinian force able to combat and disarm militants.
Peacekeepers have long been envisaged as part of any final peace deal and the Palestinians have voiced support for their deployment as a way of loosening Israel’s military grip.
The idea under discussion could mean inserting foreign troops, starting in the occupied West Bank, before a peace deal.
Israel has in the past argued that peacekeepers would interfere with its security measures and do little to rein in militants. The fact that the Gaza Strip is under the control of Hamas Islamists could make it hard to deploy such a force there.
Diplomats said that if Israel agreed, it would likely insist on combat-ready forces under U.S. command, with troops from Europe and regional powers like NATO member Turkey, a secular Muslim country that has strategic ties with the Jewish state.
A three-star U.S. general, Keith Dayton, already serves as security coordinator between Israel and the Palestinians. It is unclear if the White House could contribute American troops given public opposition to the war in Iraq.
Ahead of a U.S.-led conference on Palestinian statehood, Olmert has told his cabinet he would not implement any agreements until the Palestinians can fulfil their security obligations under a long-stalled "road map" peace plan.
Given Israeli doubts Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s forces would be able to disarm militants, some diplomats and Israeli officials say a foreign force may be the only available option in the 14 months left in President George W. Bush’s term.
While U.S. officials see improvement in Abbas’s security capabilities, they acknowledge his forces have a long way to go.
"You’ve got to fill the gap," said one senior Western diplomat, who stressed that the talks about deploying an international force were only at a preliminary stage and may prove too complicated to be carried out.
Western diplomats said it was unclear whether it would be possible to assemble a force and create a mandate acceptable to Israel, the Palestinians and countries sending soldiers.
Despite Israel’s traditional reluctance to allow peacekeepers, Olmert has signalled an increased readiness to consider the idea since last year’s Lebanon war ended with deployment of a strengthened U.N.-led force, known as UNIFIL.
"The idea of an international force in the Palestinian Authority areas is a preliminary idea," said Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin. She said it had not been discussed by the cabinet.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon, an Olmert confidant, noted a shift in Israeli sentiment towards the idea of international intervention.
"NATO and UNIFIL are considered in Israel as a success. In the past we were totally against intervention," he told Reuters.
Palestinian officials said Abbas initiated the idea of an international force to try to allay Israeli security concerns.
A European Union source said EU members have expressed interest in monitoring an Israeli-Palestinian accord, but discussions were at a preliminary stage.
With Hamas Islamists in control of the Gaza Strip, any deployments may be limited at first to the West Bank, where Abbas’s secular Fatah faction holds sway.
Olmert said in July an international force along the Gaza-Egypt border should be seriously considered to help counter Hamas’s growing strength. He has not spoken publicly about such a force in the West Bank.
Palestinian officials have accused Israel of crippling their security forces by demolishing key facilities during an uprising that erupted in 2000 when the last round of peace talks foundered.
Israel has yet to meet its own road map commitments to freeze all Jewish settlement activity and uproot illegal outposts in the West Bank.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah)