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BICOM Daily Briefing December 4 2003

Last updated: 2003-12-04

The UK press has little coverage of Israel-related issues, with an article in The Guardian on the leaked EU anti-semitism report. The Times reports on a Palestinian baby who was born with a birthmark in the shape of the name of his uncle, a Hamas terrorist killed after masterminding a suicide bombing. BBC Online has a feature on the IDF’s first Eskimo soldier, adopted as a child in Alaska by a religious Israeli family. In BBC’s Hard Talk programme, Tim Sebastian interviewed Geneva initiative leaders Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo.

The foiled terror attacks on a high school in northern Israel yesterday dominates the Israeli news this morning, with Galei Zahal army radio noting that security forces are currently facing 42 planned terror attacks. Maariv leads this morning on the chances of a Palestinian ceasefire, while Yediot Ahronot reports on the dismantling of three abandoned outposts. Opposing opinions regarding Syrian peace overtures are the subjects of editorials in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. Haaretz also reports on comments made by NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson, who said that the organisation would not play a role in the Middle East peace process. In other news, Haaretz reports that Israeli footballer Yossi Benayoun may join Tottenham Hotspur.

Quotes of the Day:

Yokne’am bomb could have had strategic implications

Tzahi Hanegbi, Minister of Public Security (Galei Zahal radio, 04/12): “You could imagine that if this attack had succeeded, it would have been of strategic significance, in the wake of which there would have been at total change in the situation. We have had experience of attacks like that on Passover evening with the massacre at the Park Hotel.”

Ze’ev Boim, Deputy Minister of Defence (Israel Radio, 04/12): “Assad has some nerve to offer to talk about peace and not stop supporting terrorism."

Foreign Minister Shalom calls for increased EU action to counter anti-semitism

Silvan Shalom (Israel Radio, 03/12): “This is a comprehensive battle which should be waged immediately so that all those attempting to raise the banner of anti-Semitism anew will know that there is a large group opposed to them. Therefore, I very much hope that the EU, which all too often knows to tell Israel what it should do or how to behave, will act very clearly and unequivocally with regard to this issue."

Behind the News:

IDF foils attack on high scool in North

A massive security alert in the north of Israel was lifted on Wednesday afternoon after soldiers captured two Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. According to IDF sources, the two were planning a suicide bombing at a school in Yokne’am. The terrorists revealed to security officials the whereabouts of a 10-kg explosives belt that one of them was to have worn in the attack. An initial investigation of the two revealed they were members of the Palestinian National Security forces, in addition to being members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose offices are in Damascus. This comes only three days after Syrian President Bashar Assad called for renewed talks with Israel.

In a separate development yesterday, a Palestinian bystander alerted a police patrol to a bomb near the Tapuah junction in the West Bank. Border Police bomb disposal experts blew up the bomb, which they estimate contained 10 to 20 kg of explosives. It was also reported Thursday morning that the Erez crossing point has been closed due to fear that a package that was sent in the mail from Gaza to Israel contains explosives. Bomb disposal experts are checking the package.

Palestinian talks in Cairo may signal renewed ceasefire

Palestinian factions held informal talks in Cairo on Wednesday about proposals for a conditional cease-fire with Israel. 13 factions held talks on a two-stage cease-fire that, if agreed, would be announced late on Saturday or Sunday after talks will open officially on Thursday. General Omar Suleiman, the head of the Egyptian security forces, has been the main mediator in the talks. All Palestinian factions said a cease-fire required a clear Israeli commitment to stop building a fence in the West Bank and to halt Jewish settlement expansion, as well as a troop withdrawal from Palestinian cities.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) is expected to arrive in Cairo on Saturday to take part in the cease-fire talks, ahead of a possible meeting with Prime Minister Sharon to revive stalled peace moves. Israel has already voiced scepticism about a Palestinian cease-fire. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said on Tuesday that Israel was not part of the Palestinian discussions and any ceasefire was unlikely to hold for long.  

EU Euro-Med summit ends, Shalom asks ministers to shelve Palestinian proposal

The two-day EU meeting with Israel and its neighbours in Naples ended on Wednesday with new pledges of economic and moral support for the Middle East, but with harsh words for both sides. The Euro-Mediterranean meeting is a regular part of the EU's economic outreach program that has allocated more than US$11.8 billion in economic and other support for Israel and its Arab neighbours in support of US-led peace efforts. The summit was attended by the 15 EU nations and by Israel, Algeria, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Mauritania, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus and Malta. Libya attended as an observer.

In his final statement to the summit, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom asked European Union officials to not to support a Palestinian attempt to take the matter of the West Bank security fence to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. This proposal to put the fence on trial will be brought up at the United Nationals General Assembly meeting next Monday. Shalom warned that such a move would render the road map for Middle East peace totally meaningless.

NATO chief: we won't play any role in Mideast peace process

NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson told reporters on Wednesday that NATO will not serve as an international buffer force between Israel and the future Palestinian state, and Israel is not a candidate to join the international military alliance. According to reports in Haaretz, Robertson, who will be leaving office at the end of this month, said that in the future, NATO countries will consider involvement in the Middle East political process but no such involvement is currently being considered. He said that NATO's relations with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the four Maghreb countries will be upgraded, but will remain far from membership status.

NATO foreign ministers, due to issue a joint statement at the end of their current meeting, will include an invitation in that statement to senior officials from those countries to a meeting with NATO leaders in June 2004 in Istanbul. Apparently, the invitation will go to the foreign ministers, not the heads of the governments of Israel and the Arab countries.

Saudi UN Ambassador attacks Israeli policy

Saudi Arabia has criticised Israeli policy, and said Israel has been turning down all regional and international Mid-East peace initiatives and at the same time it has been practising terrorism in a flagrant violation of the international legitimacy resolutions. Earlier in the year, Saudi Arabia launched an initiative for full normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world in return for Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

Fawzi Abd-al-Majid Shabukshi, Saudi Ambassador to the UN, claimed that Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people points to the determination of the Israeli government on blocking any effort for reaching a just and comprehensive solution. "The international community should put up pressure on Israel until it complies with the resolutions of the international community," said Shabukshi while addressing the UN's General Assembly on Tuesday.

Comment and Opinion:

Haaretz (4/12): Bashar Assad's request in Monday's New York Times, that the U.S. initiate renewal of the political process between Israel and Syria, raises both doubts and interest. Doubts, because in the three years since he's been president of Syria he has not shown any practical readiness to initiate a political process, called Israel an "illegitimate country" in an interview nine months ago, established the principle that "comprehensive peace," meaning peace with the Palestinians as well as Syria, should guide the process, and announced that the basic precondition for resuming the process is to pick it up from where it was cut off in 2000.

Moreover, Israel has practical reasons to suspect Assad's intentions, because of his support for Hezbollah and the backing he gives to its continued actions against Israel, and because of the pressure from Washington on Assad's regime.

Syria is still on the list of states that support terrorism, it is suspected of aiding infiltrators operating against coalition forces in Iraq, it refuses to take part in regional summits meant to advance the road map - which it has called "bribery for the Arabs" - and even managed to distort the results of the Arab summit in Beirut meant to adopt the Saudi Arabian peace initiative. And lately, Syria has been facing American sanctions because of a bill passed by Congress that was meant "to settle accounts" with Syria.

On the other hand, there are new elements in Assad's statements that could raise interest. Assad is not posing any preconditions to continue the process even though he "proposes" that it pick up where it was left off; he specifically used the phrase "full normalization of relations with Israel" and not only security arrangements, in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal; and there is nothing in his statement this time about more conditions like "comprehensive peace," or avoiding negotiations with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he has referred to in the past as a murderer with blood on his hands.

It is also possible to discern a change in Assad's handling of terrorism in all its forms. Thus, for example, last week he sent Turkey 22 suspects in the Istanbul bombings, cooperated with the FBI in their investigation of Al-Qaida's terror network in Syria, and, according to American intelligence officials, Syria has been helping to foil terror attacks.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been chilly in its reaction to the Syrian president's comments, and regards his statements as an attempt to relieve American pressure on his country by putting on the appearances of a conciliatory policy that does not necessarily spell a serious intention.

That may be so. But that understandable suspicion cannot absolve Israel of seriously considering the Syrian president's intentions. Israel has an interest in encouraging peace initiatives with it in the region, and it is obliged to examine Assad's intentions without reservations or constraints.

Jerusalem Post (4/12): Syrian President Bashar Assad thinks that all he has to do is make some pro-peace noises and no one will notice what he is up to.

In the past, this might have worked. Today, however, Syria cannot get away with fomenting terror in multiple directions while claiming the right to be considered among peace-loving nations.

In his interview with The New York Times earlier this week, Assad certainly took pains to put his best face forward by seemingly offering Israel an olive branch and calling for the renewal of the peace talks aborted by his late father in 2000. Concomitantly, he plans to visit neighboring Turkey next month in a milestone move to make new friends next door.

But Syria's sinister face remains uncleansed. While ostensibly making conciliatory overtures, Damascus still harbors the headquarters of at least 11 terrorist organizations. By some counts the number is higher. They receive not only safe haven, but also succor from Assad's regime.

While supposedly pursuing peace, Syria is putting the finishing touches on a deal with a former Soviet republic to purchase shoulder-fired rockets capable of downing passenger planes and helicopters, just the sort of weapon for which terrorist outfits hanker. If the deal isn't foiled, there's no guarantee Syria won't pass the portable missiles to Hizbullah or to the various anti-American Iraqi groups it sponsors and aids.”


Israel Briefing supplied by BICOM