Four former Israeli security chiefs sharply criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies toward the Palestinians on Friday, warning in unusually bold terms that Israel is headed for catastrophe if it does not reach a peace deal soon.
The former security chiefs, respected for their combined 18 years of experience as leaders of the Shin Bet intelligence agency, called on the government to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the only way to avoid more violence after more than three years of fighting.
"It is clear to me that we are heading toward a crash," said Carmi Gilon, one of the former security chiefs.
Their comments came two weeks after army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon said the government needed to ease restrictions that have increasingly angered Palestinians. Another of the four, Yaakov Perry, said it was no coincidence that those closest to the conflict came to the same conclusion.
"Why is it that everyone, Shin Bet directors, chiefs of staff, former security personnel ... become the advocates of reconciliation with the Palestinians?" Perry asked. "We know the material, the people in the field and, surprisingly enough, both sides."
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei is trying to secure an agreement from Palestinian extremists to halt attacks on Israelis in anticipation of a broader truce with Israel.
Israel's security services are reportedly divided on whether to accept a truce. The military believes that a cease-fire is a step in the right direction and is ready to halt assassinations of Palestinian militants, the Maariv newspaper reported Friday. The current Shin Bet chief is concerned that armed groups will use the lull to plan more attacks.
The four former security leaders -- Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Perry and Gilon -- spoke in an interview with the Yediot Aharonot daily published Friday.
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, praised the four. "It reflects the realistic policy required from the Israeli side," he said.
Former Israeli President Ezer Weizman accused the former Shin Bet leaders of undermining the government, calling them the "four musketeers."
"This really makes me furious," Weizman told Israel Television. "We have a country that is in a very delicate situation."