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BICOM Daily Briefing January 7 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-07

In the UK papers, Middle East coverage today centres on the decision by Egypt and Iran to renew ties, broken off after Egypt entered a peace process with Israel 25 years ago. The Guardian, the Independent and Times all cover this story, as does the Reuters news service. The decision by EU Commission President Romano Prodi to cancel a planned conference on antisemitism is reported in the Guardian, Independent, Times and the Daily Telegraph. The Financial Times publishes a leader article discussing this issue. The Daily Telegraph also features a letter by Conservative MEP David Sumberg, who criticises EU policy toward Syria. The Independent reports on Bashar Assad’s admission that Syria possesses weapons of mass destruction, while the Times and BBC News Online focus on the Syrian leader’s call for Israel to disarm. The Sun, meanwhile, concentrates on Assad’s comments in defence of suicide bombings. The Independent and the Daily Mail cover Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s address to the Likud Central Committee on Monday.

In the Israeli media, the main story is a report on Israeli contacts with Libya. This is covered by all newspapers and was the top item on both Channel 1 and Channel 2 news last night, with much speculation on the likely significance of the reports. Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post both also cover the EU decision to cancel the planned conference on antisemitism. Maariv has a piece on remarks made by Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon yesterday, criticising ongoing Syrian support for terrorism against Israel.

Quotes of the Day:

On prospects for normalised relations with Libya

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (Haaretz, 07/01): “Should Libya return to the family of nations and disarm, Israel will not rule out dialogue with it.”

Ephraim Sneh, Labour MK (Haaretz, 07/01): “My impression from this meeting was that Gadhafi has made a strategic decision, and he is not a man of small steps. He will not stop halfway. He could go as far as relations with Israel, and beyond.”

Former head of National Security Council on Palestinian strategy

Efraim Halevy, Former Mossad and NSC Head (Jerusalem Post, 07/01): “[Yasser Arafat] has said very often that the future of the conflict will be decided in the womb of the Palestinian mother. There are Palestinians who believe one should drag your feet... and bide time until these processes reach fruition…I think that is the strategy which causes the continued support for terrorist attacks."

Behind the News:

Reports of Israeli contacts with Libya

In the wake of Libya’s announcement of its decision to abandon its program to develop weapons of mass destruction, Israel is investigating the possibility of establishing relations with Tripoli. To this end, Foreign Ministry officials have met with Libyan representatives in Europe in the last days. Israeli governmental sources differ regarding the seriousness of the contacts, with officials in the Prime Minister’s Office expressing some scepticism in this regard.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyasa was the first to report on the contacts. The paper claimed yesterday that an Israeli delegation would visit Tripoli some time this month, with the intention of laying the groundwork for the ‘ending of hostilities’ between Israel and Libya, and the establishing of ‘normal ties’ between the two countries. The reports dominated Israeli news coverage last night, but no official statement regarding the contacts has yet been released, and top officials refuse to publicly comment on them.

Meanwhile, Labour MK Ephraim Sneh has confirmed reports published in Haaretz that he and Shinui MK Ilan Shalgi met earlier this year with the son of Muammar Gadhafi and said that the Libyan leader could go as far as to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Sneh said that two other Israelis who participated in the meeting were former senior officials in Israeli intelligence, but he did not name them.

Cancellation of European Conference on anti-semitism

Following yesterday’s Financial Times article by Jewish leaders Edgar Bronfman and Cobi Benatoff, which was critical of the EU’s response to antisemitism, EU Commission President Romano Prodi has announced the cancellation of a planned conference on antisemitism. The conference was to have been the first forum for discussion of this matter to be held under EU auspices. Israeli officials and leaders of organisations fighting antisemitism expressed their disappointment at Prodi’s decision.

In their article, Bronfman and Benatoff recalled the recent EU decision not to publish a report the Union had itself commissioned on the question of antisemitism, because of the report’s conclusion that much of the responsibility for antisemitic acts in Europe lay with Muslim communities. Their article also referred to a recent EU poll which revealed that a large percentage of Europeans regard Israel as the major threat to world peace. Bronfman and Benatoff claimed that “both of these actions were politically motivated, demonstrating a failure of will and decency.” The initiative to hold the now cancelled conference emerged from the furore following the release of the poll.

Prodi responded to the article in a letter to the European branch of the World Jewish Congress. In his letter, Prodi denied that the EU had suppressed the report on antisemitism because of its content. “The attitude you have shown,” Prodi told Bronfman and Benatoff, “forces me to suspend the preparations.” Sources in Jerusalem suggested that Prodi had been looking for an excuse to cancel the conference, an initiative with which the EU had been uncomfortable from the outset. They claim that the article by Bronfman and Benatoff provided him with a convenient pretext for doing so.

Comment and Opinion:

Financial Times (07/01): “Europe clearly has a problem of rising anti-Semitism. But resolving this is in no way advanced by the absurd dispute that has broken out between the European Commission and Jewish leaders, who were due to hold a joint seminar on the issue of anti-Semitism next month. The Commission has now shelved plans for the seminar, after itself being attacked for anti-Semitism by the presidents of the World and European Jewish Congresses writing in Monday's Financial Times.

While the Commission decision to shelve the seminar was perhaps unwise, the attack on it was certainly provocative. The Jewish leaders, rightly, criticised the refusal of the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) last year to publish a report it commissioned from a Berlin University on anti-Semitism in Europe, even though the same centre has published several recent surveys on rising Islamophobia in Europe. The EUMC said it censured the report because it was unhappy with its definition of anti-Semitism. But the real reason appeared to be embarrassment that the report pointed the finger less at traditional far-right culprits and more at rising extremism among European Muslims, triggered by Israeli behaviour in the occupied territories. This cover-up, first revealed by the FT in November, was inexcusable.”

“That said, there is a problem in the way that widespread, and quite legitimate, European criticism of the policies of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, towards the Palestinians has been spilling over into disgraceful anti-Semitic acts, with attacks on synagogues, cemeteries, schools and shops. Such incidents have been worst in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities. Fuelling this has also been anti-Americanism, reflecting the way the US is identified with Israel. US reaction has often been to accuse Europe of returning to its old nightmare of anti-Semitism.

It is vital to reassert the dividing line between criticism of Israeli policies and anti-Semitism, and to crack down ruthlessly on the latter. Critics of Mr Sharon - who seems to use European anti-Semitism to encourage Jewish immigration to Israel - must not demonise all Israelis or all Jews. Many Israelis disagree profoundly with Mr Sharon. But Jewish leaders do themselves no service if they demonise all critics of Israel as anti-Semitic.”

David Sumberg MEP (Letters, 07/01) “Sir - Your interview with Syria's President Assad (News, Jan 6) serves as a timely reminder that the international threat of "rogue states" and the sponsorship of terrorism are still very much alive.

With proven links of financial and military aid to Palestinian terrorist organisations, as well as strong proof that Syria aided the transfer of weapons and billions of dollars out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Syria was quite rightly placed on America's list of states that support terrorism and is now subject to political and economic sanctions by the American government.

At the same time as most Western governments recognise the danger that Syria poses to world peace, we have to question how it is that the European Union could possibly contemplate, let alone accept, entering into special trade agreement status with this country.

On December 10, the European Commission declared that "all agreements contain common features, along the lines of respect for human rights and democratic principles". Other clauses include provisions to prevent and fight terrorism.

The EU, therefore, needs to look hard at whether appeasing a dictatorship with an unacceptable human rights record matches or reflects the ethical code that would be enshrined in the EU's proposed constitution.

David Sumberg MEP (Con), Manchester”

The Jerusalem Post (Editorial, 7/1): “Does the international community wish to continue the systematic destruction of its institutions on the altar of the Arab-Israeli conflict? This, not Israel's security fence, is the question that will shortly be before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. First the UN General Assembly let the tyranny of tyrannies reign when automatic majorities routinely treated one nation, Israel, as a pariah, "racist" state. This deterioration is so complete that the UN routinely ignores its own rules in its zeal to condemn Israel. It has, for example, called "emergency" sessions to condemn Israel even when the GA itself is in session.”

“If the ICJ were a fair court, it would have rejected the UN's attempt to politicize it on multiple counts. First, that the UN did not bother to wait to pronounce and condemn Israel on the very question for which it sought the court's "advisory opinion," namely the legality of the security fence. Second, because the UN entirely ignored the suicide terrorism that necessitates the fence's construction. Third, because the court is not even supposed to involve itself on "contentious issues" without the express consent of the parties. And fourth, because the Geneva Convention itself, which the fence supposedly violates, either does not apply at all, or allows for self-defense and even for the confiscation of land for "imperative military necessity."

Yet the ICJ is expected not only to consider the question, in blatant violation of its own precedents and rules, but to rule against Israel. As a result, the march to declare Israel an international outlaw state will continue. The fence is not the real issue here. The ICJ is letting itself be used in a campaign to brand Israel as an "apartheid state" which, of course, has no right to exist. By selecting Israel as the paradigm of the outlaw state, the international community is abandoning the millions of people who live under real tyrannies and whose governments are the real threats to peace and security.”


Israel Briefing supplied by BICOM