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BICOM Daily Briefing January 2 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-02

All UK papers report that the Israeli army has arrested a soldier suspected of shooting ISM activist Tom Hurndall last April. The Guardian’s editorial discusses Syrian peace overtures, a story which is also reported in the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. The Independent also carries an op-ed article from a Palestinian journalist, calling for modernisation in the Arab world.

In Israel, the talks between Egyptian envoy Osama el-Baz and Yasser Arafat are reported widely. Maariv reports on Syrian attempts to encourage Israeli Druze to stop serving in the IDF. Haaretz notes that the appointment of the new Ambassador to London, Zvi Hefetz, has been held up pending further discussions, which is also the subject of the editorial in the Jewish Chronicle.

Quotes of the Day:

Egyptian aide optimistic after talks with Arafat

Osama El-Baz, aide to President Mubarak (01/01): “We are deeply concerned to get out of this problematic situation which threatens the whole region. What I heard from President Arafat makes me more hopeful for the future." (Reuters)

Behind the News:

Israelis pessimistic about Syrian peace

A poll commissioned by Israel Radio on Thursday revealed that 53% of Israelis supported an expansion of Golan settlements, which comes in response to suggestions that Israel plans to build more housing on the Golan Heights. This level of support is considerably higher than support for keeping all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which recent surveys have indicated is around 40%. 68% of those polled thought there would be no peace talks with Syria in the near future. Some 38% said they were sure Syrian President Bashar Assad did not want peaceful relations with Israel.

Asked to describe their sense of national security, 81.7% of those polled said "terrible" or "not so good." Only 18.3% were optimistic on security.

Lebanese Druze leader urges Israeli Druze to stop serving in the IDF

The pro-Syrian leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, has called on Israeli Druze to stop serving in the IDF. According to reports in Maariv, talking to former minister Salah Tarif in recent weeks, Jumblatt urged the Druze community to take a stance against the Israeli government and to “stop fighting your Arab brothers.” Tarif, a former Labour MK and minister, was an officer in the IDF and has been one of the more outspoken proponents of army service for non-Jewish Israelis.

The Syrian attempt to weaken the links between the Druze community and Israel are curious. Sources in Jerusalem said that this move further proves that Syrian peace overtures should be examined carefully. “These messages prove that Assad is playing ‘as if’ and his intentions are not pure. He is not declaring honestly that he wants real negotiations with Israel. He wants to heat up the political scene, and create a fifth column, not hold honest peace talks,” said a senior political official quoted in the paper.

Comment and Opinion:

The Guardian (02/01): “Only Mr Assad can provide the reasons why he may want to talk for the first time since taking power after his father's death in 2000. But [Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan] Shalom appears to have been pointing to the evidently growing weakness of Syria's position, a weakness that is doubtless also obvious to Mr Katz and his less conciliatory allies. Further Israeli consolidation in the Golan may not be in immediate prospect. But that, and a lot of other unattractive possibilities, could yet come about unless Syria fundamentally shifts its ground. Unwilling or perhaps unable to break with his father's legacy, Mr Assad has stood still while the world around him changed. Saddam's Iraq was never the closest of allies. But now it is an American protectorate with, most probably, an incoming government with little love for Damascus. Iran, a stalwart friend, has ramifying troubles of its own. And it, too, like Libya, has bowed to western pressure over weapons of mass destruction.

Syria stands accused by the US of having "one of the most advanced Arab state chemical weapons capabilities" and of developing "offensive biological weapons". Washington says it furnished Saddam's loyalists and foreign jihadists with arms and assistance before and after the Iraq war. Despite arrests following the Istanbul bombings and the seizure of alleged al-Qaida funds in recent days, it claims Syria is still mixed up in international terrorism. Despite persistent (and often highly criticised) attempts by Tony Blair and other European leaders to forge a more constructive engagement, Syria continues to miss out economically as well as politically. Mr Assad's championing of the Palestinian cause, while laudable in principle, has meanwhile brought no tangible benefits for either Palestine or Syria. In October, Israel contemptuously bombed Syria without reply. These are indeed reasons, if not the right ones, to change course.”

Said Ghazali (The Independent, 01/01): “In the third millennium, this vast land has become fertile ground for fundamentalism. The unholy coalition of the Arab dictatorships and the growing fundamentalism of the peoples they rule hamper modernisation and progress, while the Arab League, dogged with endless divisions, is an empty shell incapable of solving the deep problems of the region.”

“But the correct conclusions should be drawn by rational thinkers in the Arab world: there is no middle class to introduce positive changes; our best educated citizens are serving in the world's best universities and institutions; the Arab world has no independent media and no workable judicial system to enforce the rule of law; our parliaments are rubber stamps.

Since the American soldiers set foot in Iraq, not a day passes without strong condemnation of the occupation. We have been assaulted by tides of analysis from Arab commentators exposing the negative goals of the US. Any talk by Americans about freedom and democracy, as in George Bush's speech in Britain, has been strongly dismissed. But few of the commentators, who are university academics, ex-generals and top former officials, have pointed to our own ailments. We only blame others: it is the fault of the West; it is the fault of the US neo-conservatives; it is the fault of the Jewish lobby. At times we seem almost to revel in the role of persecuted and occupied victims.

There is no serious discussion about the clash between modernisation and fundamentalism. But these are the real problems that perpetuate the Israeli occupation and which paved the way for the new American occupation. Our reaction to the US invasion was tribal, because the Arab regimes have little idea how to react beyond a series of vague sound-bites.”

“But Arabs must stop dwelling in the past. They should reinvigorate their societies by shaking the rule of dictators, by modernising Islam, by revitalising the forces of enlightenment. America, despite its flaws, has helped the Iraqi people to get rid of a most brutal regime. On the other hand, as the most recent UN development report on the Arab world pointed out, the oppressive internal security laws enacted by the US since 11 September 2001 against resident Muslims - not to mention some of the military operations carried out against Iraqi civilians - give an excuse to Arab regimes to be even more repressive towards their own citizens.

The Arab nations should conclude that, as long as Arab dictators rule unchallenged by the masses, there will be more occupations, more oppression, more poverty, and more slavery - which is worse than occupation. The anti-occupation struggle must not divert us from diagnosing our own chronic weaknesses We have yet to challenge the forces of darkness pushing us backwards when we desperately need to go forwards.”


Israel Briefing supplied by BICOM