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BICOM Daily Briefing December 22 2003

Last updated: 2003-12-22

In today’s coverage of Israel and the Middle East, The Guardian reports on Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz’ remarks regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, delivered to an Iranian audience in Farsi on Israel Radio. The Financial Times features a piece on Israel’s security fence, as part of a series reviewing the international issues of the past year. The Times, Reuters and the Glasgow Herald all have stories on the letter of refusal to serve in the territories written by veterans of an IDF elite unit. The Daily Telegraph’s Toby Harnden reports from the settlement of Netzarim, amid speculation of possible dismantlement following PM Sharon’s speech last Thursday.

For more information on PM Sharon’s speech, please see BICOM weekend brief (20-21 December).

Over the weekend, most newspapers concentrated on Lybia’s declaration of its intention to stop the development of weapons of mass destruction. Saturday’s Daily Telegraph focuses on a legal warning given to Louise Ellman MP by Azzam Tamimi of the Muslim Association of Britain, after she quoted in parliament anti-semitic remarks made by him. Also on Saturday, The Times, The Independent and The Financial Times all speculate on the consequences of PM Sharon’s speech, with the Financial Times analysing PM Sharon’s motives. The Guardian looks at Israel’s tourism industry’s efforts to attract additional tourists to Israel. In Sunday’s papers, The Sunday Times details opposition among the Israeli Right and settlers’ groups to plans for unilateral withdrawal. The paper also reports on Israeli concern at Egyptian spy planes found to be observing an Israeli ballistic missile site and other installations. In The Observer, Shai Feldman explains why he believes the roadmap for peace has collapsed.

In the Israeli press, all four major daily papers - Haaretz, Yediot Ahronot, Maariv and the Jerusalem Post - lead with the letter of refusal by veterans of the elite army unit. The Jerusalem Post also has a story on Khaled Mashal’s likening of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis with Iraqi violent opposition to coalition forces.

Quotes of the Day:

On the IDF reservists letter of refusal to serve

Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister (Haaretz, 22/12): “if people base their military service on their political opinions, be they left-wing or right-wing, we won’t have an army or a state left. It is time to stop using military service as a political axe.”

Ehud Barak, Former Prime Minister (Yediot Ahronot, 22/12): “This is a serious error. It is not too late, and they can still turn back from it. There is no place for refusal to serve in a democracy, because the elected government remains the source of authority for the armed forces.”

Danny Yatom, Labour MK (Haaretz, 22/12): “Refusal harms society's strength…I condemn any form of refusal. No person or group has the right to determine which missions are to be carried out.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister visiting Israel

Ahmed Maher, Egyptian Foreign Minister (Haaretz, 22/12): “Peace has to be general and adapted to the needs of both sides, both Israelis and Palestinians. We are convinced that Egypt will contribute to an overall peace in the region.”

PM Ariel Sharon (Haaretz, 22/12): “I am sure that this visit will contribute to the strengthening of relations between Egypt and Israel. We have an interest in this. Egypt is the biggest and most important country in the Middle East. I hope this visit will contribute to our relationship with the Palestinian Authority and our efforts to reach a peace agreement.”

Behind the News:

Letter of refusal signed by elite unit reservists

In a letter sent last night to PM Sharon, 13 reservists from the IDF’s premier special operations unit indicated their refusal to accept further missions in the West Bank and Gaza. Sayeret Matkal, the unit in which the signatories serve, was responsible for some of Israel’s most famed counter-terror operations, including the Entebbe raid, and the freeing of hostages from a hijacked Sabena airplane in 1972. The soldiers’ refusal was based, according to their letter, on their opposition to Jewish settlements in the territories, and their unwillingness to participate in what they regard as violations of the human rights of Palestinian residents of these areas. The response to the soldiers’ letter has been swift and critical, from across the political spectrum.

The letter is the third such public declaration by reservists since the outbreak of the current wave of Palestinian violence three years ago. However, despite the wide media coverage these initiatives received, in numerical terms the phenomenon of refusal to serve remains limited. It has also been countered by a less publicised phenomenon of reserve soldiers volunteering for extra service.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher on visit to Israel

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher arrived in Israel for an official visit today. In the course of the visit, Maher will meet with PM Ariel Sharon, President Moshe Katzav, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and leader of the opposition Shimon Peres. Maher has no meeting currently scheduled with PA chairman Yasser Arafat. According to Palestinian sources, however, Maher is likely to travel to Ramallah next week to meet with PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) and with Arafat. Maher’s talks with the Israelis are likely to focus on the efforts to renew peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. A recent Cairo-brokered attempt to reach a general cease-fire of Palestinian terror organisations was unsuccessful.

The visit was arranged during last week’s meeting between FM Shalom and President Mubarak in Geneva. At that meeting, Mubarak also expressed an interest in meeting with PM Sharon. The visit by the Egyptian Foreign Minister comes against a backdrop of continued contacts between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, and ongoing attempts to set up a meeting between PM Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Qureia.

Date set for ICJ hearings on Security Fence

In response to a request from the UN General Assembly, the International Court of Justice announced on Friday that it would open hearings next February on Israel’s decision to construct its security fence. The ICJ ruled that written statements should be submitted by January 2004.

Comment and Opinion:

Henry Kissinger (Yediot Ahronot, 22/12): “The line separating the two societies (Israeli and Palestinian)is not an international border, but rather the ceasefire line of 1948, which the Palestinians never accepted as the border of a legitimate Israeli state.

In any future agreement, Israeli concessions will be substantive and territorial, while Palestinian concessions will be mainly psychological, of a type which may be retracted. The obligation to refrain from terror was part of Oslo, and the results proved disastrous. The claim that simply reaching an agreement will itself rebuild trust does not stand up to examination.

Consequently, American opposition to the concept of the Security Fence should be reconsidered. A physical barrier, resistant to penetration, would allow Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, and the removal of roadblocks, which are humiliating for Palestinians. Opposition to the fence derives, among other things, from its’ recalling the walls built by communist regimes, especially that which ran along the border dividing the two Germanies. But these walls were built to imprison the populations living under communist rule, while Israel seeks only to prevent terrorist incursions from outside. A more substantive objection is that the fence will prevent rapprochement and reconciliation between the two peoples. But such reconciliation can only come after the slow growth of real co-existence, after which the very need for the fence will perhaps disappear.”

Shai Feldman (The Observer, 21/12): “I was among the people who were optimistic about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians during the summer. The removal of Saddam Hussein and the erasing of his armies changed the balance of power in the region towards Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This led to the summits at Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba. Then, the Palestinians appointed a Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who was against the militarisation of the intifada and was committed to the direction of peace. This impressed Ariel Sharon, who decided not to fight the road map.

After the ceasefire, there was great optimism in Israel. But it began to transpire that the stars were not well enough arrayed for peace to prevail. Many in the security community here felt that Israel could have been more generous and could have done more to support Abbas. But at the same time it was clear the Palestinians were not doing anything to act against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The community here felt the Palestinian factions were using the ceasefire to re-arm for the next round of violence.

The Israeli security services would have felt greater confidence if they saw the Palestinians taking action against the terrorist groups. As the Israeli army took action themselves I felt the whole thing beginning to collapse. Then there was the suicide bomb attack on a Jerusalem bus which killed 22. This was followed by a series of missile attacks against members of Hamas and Gaza, which failed to separate the militants from the population from which they came. The future of the road map depends on the success of the Egyptians in brokering a ceasefire among the Palestinian factions and the determination of the US and Europe in persuading the Israeli and Palestinian governments to carry out their commitments.”

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Israel Briefing supplied by BICOM