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BICOM Daily Briefing December 5 2003

Last updated: 2003-12-05

The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mirror carry details of a report by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, which claims that Israel was part of the US and UK intelligence ‘failure’ surrounding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This story is also reported in the Israeli press, with the Jerusalem Post noting that the think tank also published a counter-argument to the piece. The Independent features a piece on the young Arab-Israeli musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. In the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Freedland suggests that the documentary “Clubbing on the Front Line”, which will be broadcast tonight on Channel 4 and which shows life of young people in Israel today, gives a picture of Israel that is difficult to get from the daily news. The Economist contains a piece entitled ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’, that focuses on the Geneva Accords.

The Israeli press focuses on fast-moving developments with Syria. The Jerusalem Post reports that the Syrian air force have moved to a higher alert status, and Yediot Ahronot reports on strenuous denials of Syrian involvement in yesterday’s foiled school bombing plot in Northern Israel. All the Israeli papers consider what Israel’s response would have been had the bomb exploded. Israeli papers also comment on the US Administration’s approach to Middle East peace and the fact that Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Ala is in Egypt for the ceasefire talks.

Quotes of the Day:

Syria denies involvement in foiled school bomb plot:

Faisal Maqdad, Syrian Ambassador to the UN (Yediot Ahronot, 4/12): “These are big lies. Islamic Jihad and the other organisations do not have the military potential to mount such attacks from Damascus.”

Foreign Minister Silvan Salom interviewed on Al-Jazeera TV:

Silvan Shalom, Foreign Minister (Al-Jazeera TV, 4/12): “We are willing to do everything to narrow and bridge the gap between the Palestinians and us. I think that if the Palestinians were serious about work and peace they would find in us a serious peace partner.”

Silvan Shalom, (Al-Jazeera, 4/12): “As long as Arafat is still around, there is no possibility that a moderate Palestinian leadership will emerge. We were talking with a number of Palestinians and several of them told us that they were willing to accept compromise solutions in order to achieve peace with Israel. This is what will change all the Middle East but Arafat will never let them do it.”

Bush offers support for Geneva initiative, Powell sticks to roadmap:

George W. Bush (BBC Online, 4/12): “We appreciate people discussing peace; we just want to make sure people understand that the principles to peace are clear.”

Colin Powell, Secretary of State for Defence (BBC Online, 4/12): “[The roadmap is] the only real plan that is out there that has been adopted by the parties.”

Cautious optimism at Cairo ceasefire talks:

Ahmed Maher, Egyptian Foreign Minister (Haaretz, 4/12): “The chances are good provided there is reciprocation on the part of Israel. The Palestinian organisations are willing to accept a truce.”

Ze'ev Boim, Deputy Defence Minister (Kol Israel Radio, 4/12): “If the Palestinians agree to a cease-fire in Cairo, it's certainly not out of the question that Israel will agree to restrain its military activity.”

General Omar Suleiman, Egyptian Intelligence head (Maariv, 4/12): “We must establish political objectives for the year ahead to rid ourselves of the tag of terrorists that has been stuck to us. The Americans support Israel and Sharon unequivocally, whilst the Palestinians are in a crisis of leadership and of policy. We Egyptians have a plan and we will know how to act if anyone harms Palestinian unity.”

Behind the News:

Syrian air force moves to higher alert status; claims fears of Israeli attack:

The Syrian air force has received orders to prepare for an Israeli military strike, according to a briefing by IDF Intelligence. A senior officer told military reporters that it is Syria which stands in the way of peace efforts, and the IDF would have recommended striking targets in Syria had Israeli children been killed in yesterday’s foiled attempt to place a bomb in a Yokne’am school.

The Syrian moves follow Israel’s cautious response to President Bashar Assad's recent informal proposal for talks, made to The New York Times. In a speech on Wednesday, Assad accused Jerusalem of creating tensions by its "policies of escalation and extremism."

He said Israel responded to "Arab willingness to make peace" with "negligence and rejection." He claimed that tension throughout the region is due to "the policies of escalation and extremism the Israeli government follows and its actions of aggression on the Arab people in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria."

According to defence sources, the Syrian Air Force has raised its level of alert and has been patrolling the border with Israel in anticipation of another IAF strike. IAF bombed an empty Palestinian training base near Damascus on October 5 in retaliation for the suicide bombing at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa in which 21 people were murdered.

Palestinian factions meet in Cairo to discuss truce:

There are encouraging signs from the meeting of more than a dozen Palestinian factions in Cairo to discuss the resumption of a ceasefire with Israel. The Egyptian brokers, led by Military Intelligence head General Omar Suleiman, want the cease-fire to eventually lead to a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Suleiman, who arranged the Palestinian talks after weeks of diplomacy, is expected to go to the United States next week to brief US officials on the talks.

Egyptian officials close to the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Egypt is pushing the idea of a broader truce that would not only halt attacks on civilians in Israel but also on soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. However, officials from Fatah and smaller groups said taking such a step would require Israel to also commit to broader steps.

Palestinian sources on Wednesday said Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia intends to present Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with the terrorist groups' agreement for a ceasefire, if it is achieved, along with further steps to be taken by the PA to complement the initiative, including sealing Rafah weapon smuggling tunnels, collection of illegal arms and arrests of those who violate the agreement.

Foreign Minister Shalom interviewed on Al-Jazeera:

In an interview with Al-Jazeera correspondent Walid al-Umari on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the pan-Arab satellite television station that Israel will do all it can to achieve peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, but that they would not negotiate while terrorism continues. He said that Israel was ready to talk to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and is taking "positive initiatives" for the resumption of negotiations. Shalom said that for "real negotiations and real peace" to occur, there needs to be a Palestinian leader who is willing to dismantle the infrastructure of the terrorist organisations. He added that the only way for the peace process to progress is for both sides to implement their commitments under the road map. Shalom also said that the security fence is a "security" not a "political fence" which was being built to protect Israelis from attacks and that its removal in the future was "possible".

Comment and Opinion:

The Economist (5/12): “Listen to the fulminations of the critics and you might conclude that the Israelis and Palestinians who unveiled a freelance peace plan at a media event in Geneva this week had come up with some startling and dangerous new idea. Some Israeli politicians and American newspaper columnists called the plan a recipe for Jewish national suicide. Palestinians in the occupied territories took to the streets to denounce the plan for betraying their rights. Ehud Olmert, Israel's vice prime minister, accused Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, of making a “wrong step” in agreeing to meet the plan's authors. “I think he is not helping the process,” Mr Olmert said.

In point of fact, the Geneva plan is not new at all. It is in essence not very different from the plan the government of Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit of 2000 and elaborated during further negotiations at Taba in early 2001. It comes very close to the “parameters” described by Bill Clinton at around the same time. It looks much like the sort of settlement George Bush envisages as the final destination of the so-called “road map” he has laid down for peace in Palestine, which both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat say they are trying to follow. Indeed, it is based not just on previous and existing diplomacy but also on common sense, which dictates that peace must be based on two peoples sharing Palestine between two states, with a border more or less on the armistice line that separated Israel and its neighbours between 1948 and 1967. The rage against this inoffensive plan is depressing because it shows how far the official leadership on each side still is from making the inevitable compromises.”

The Independent (05/12): “In August, as the intifada was raging in the Middle East and the much-vaunted "road map" to peace appeared to be in tatters, thousands of miles away, in the Royal Albert Hall, the pianists Saleem Abboud-Ashkar and Shai Wosner were smiling, holding hands and taking a bow in front of an ecstatic audience. In tandem with the conductor Daniel Barenboim, they had just completed a triumphant performance of Mozart's Concerto for Three Pianos. The standing ovation at the end of the Prom lasted for half an hour. It was a moment rich with symbolism: Abboud-Ashkar is Palestinian; Wosner, Israeli.

This affecting image had its origins in a project begun four years ago. At that time, Barenboim, the acclaimed Argentine-born, Israeli conductor, teamed up with his old friend, the now deceased Palestinian philosopher Edward Said, to bring to life a concept that sceptics on both sides of the political divide derided as impossibly misguided: a youth orchestra consisting equally of Jews and Arabs. After trawling the Middle East for candidates and coming up with many fine young musicians from both communities, they formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.”

“He continues, saying that the orchestra, which is the subject of an absorbing edition of ITV1's The South Bank Show this Sunday, is "a musical version of what I think about the Middle East, a vision I can have of the Middle East where everyone is able to contribute and where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

That's all very well, but isn't the entire idea absurdly idealistic? Very possibly. And yet the players who have been to Barenboim's workshops attest to the unifying force of the music. Mina Zikri, an Egyptian violinist, reckons that getting to know Israeli members of the orchestra "humanises the other party. Images can be very misleading. The suicide bomber brings to mind a certain image. So does the [Israeli] military operation. But these must not be fixed in one's brain."

Through the orchestra, he has befriended Israelis, including a bassoonist called Ayelet Ballin. "Now, when I see her," Zikri carries on, "I think: 'Here is my friend,' not: 'Here is the Israeli person.'"

Yoni Etzion, an Israeli member of the orchestra, takes up the theme. "Here we get to understand that life isn't about territory and war. We all have the same purpose - to make music - and that brings us together." There is certainly no favouritism on Barenboim's part. He says that he loses his temper just as easily with musicians from both sides of the divide, and that nobody takes it personally.”

Zvi Bar'el (Haaretz, 5/12): “Which Assad should be believed - the one who says that Israel is behind all the troubles that befall the Arab states, as he told Al Safir in March, or the Assad who is sending up balloons of normalization and full relations in the interview to The New York Times - an interview that has been kept from the eyes of Syria's citizens?

Political leaders tend to change their positions according to circumstances, and diplomacy is an especially flexible business. Bashar's father, too, had his share of statements deploring Israel, yet nevertheless he sat at the negotiating table a number of times. Bashar Assad, too, is changing his tune. He is not stipulating another comprehensive peace after the "betrayal" of the Palestinians at Oslo, Jordan in the Arava agreement and Egypt, "the mother of all sins," in the Camp David agreement. Assad even supported the Saudi initiative which speaks - at the end of the road - of a peace between all the Arab states and Israel.

But it seems that Assad is sometimes alarmed by his own positions. He did not formally object to the road map, but attacked it publicly as "an American bribe to the Arabs." He did not participate in the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba summits, but he allowed the leadership of the Palestinian organizations that enjoy his protection to take part in the hudna (truce) talks in Egypt. What exactly does Assad want now? Is this a change in his worldview, or only a public relations ploy? More about this, perhaps, in the next interview with him.”

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Israel Briefing by BICOM