In unusually bold criticism, four former heads of the Israeli security agency warned Friday that the country is headed for disaster unless Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reverses course and moves quickly to settle the conflict with the Palestinians.
The warnings by former directors of the vaunted Shin Bet agency come at a time when Sharon is weighing whether to accept a Palestinian offer of a truce that would not be accompanied by a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups. In the past, Sharon has rejected such a plan.
CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger reports a new poll shows Sharon's approval rating has dropped to just 34 percent, at least in part because of the lack of progress with the Palestinians.
On Friday, the spiritual leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas ruled out any prospects for an immediate end to attacks on Israelis, but held out the possibility of talks.
"We have no objection to any dialogue with the (Palestinian) prime minister," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin told a rally in the Gaza Strip. "We are willing to listen to any proposal. We will give him answers, but not out of the blue. But in the current situation we can't talk about any cease-fire."
Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian officials are gearing up for new peace talks, reports Berger.
The Palestinians say as a first step, the Israeli army must ease tough restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to create the right atmosphere for negotiations.
The Israelis say Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia must fight terrorism.
"We'll do everything that we can to make that job easier for him, and life easier for the Palestinian people," said spokesman Daniel Taub.
Israel's security services are reportedly divided on accepting a truce without a crackdown, with the military in favor and the current Shin Bet chief opposed. The military believes a cease-fire is a step in the right direction and is ready to minimize operations, including halting targeted killings of Palestinian militants, Israeli newspapers reported Friday. The Shin Bet fears armed groups will use the lull to reorganize for more attacks.
"We are heading downhill towards near-catastrophe," ex-security chief Yaakov Perry told the daily Yediot Ahronoth. "If nothing happens and we go on living by the sword, we will continue to wallow in the mud and destroy ourselves."
The other three Shin Bet directors are Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gilon.
However, a senior government source told Haaretz the former Shin Bet chiefs are naive.
"The situation is not as weak as they describe," he said.
Sharon hasn't made a final decision, Maariv said, but the outcome could well determine the direction of the conflict. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia wants to persuade the militants to halt attacks and then get Israel to agree to a truce. Qureia, and other leaders before him, have said they cannot order a crackdown for fear of setting off internal fighting.
Qureia formed a government earlier this week, ending weeks of political wrangling and setting the stage for a meeting with Sharon. Israel's foreign minister has said the summit could take place within 10 days. However, the Haaretz daily reported that Sharon was in no hurry and would only begin consultations on the approach to the Qureia government after he returns from Italy next week.
The former security chiefs see the problem as more pressing.
"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 Yediot Ahronoth.
The four said that Israel needs to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — even if it entails an inevitable clash with some of the 220,000 Jewish settlers who've built towns and outposts there.
The former security chiefs said Sharon's preoccupation with trying to halt attacks by Palestinians before agreeing to peace talks is at best misguided, and at worst a ploy to avoid concessions, including a freeze in Jewish settlement construction.
The views of the ex-Shin Bet directors and the army chief carry considerable weight because of their familiarity with the conflict. They are considered professionals somewhat removed from the heated political debate in Israel over how to settle the conflict with the Palestinians.
The former Shin Bet chiefs won praise from Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "It reflects the realistic policy required from the Israeli side," he said.
With the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan stalled, a number of former and current top officials have questioned Israel's direction in a conflict that has lasted more than three years.
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon said two weeks ago that despite the threat of attacks by militants, the military needed to ease curfews and restricted passage through checkpoints that have generated widespread anger among ordinary Palestinians.