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BICOM Daily Briefing January 8 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-08

Reports of contacts between Israeli and Libyan officials receive coverage in a number of British news outlets today. The Times, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph all feature stories on this latest development,as do BBC Online, Associated Press and Reuters. The decision by EU Commission President Romano Prodi to reverse his cancellation of a proposed conference on antisemitism also receives some media attention, with pieces in The Independent, The Financial Times and Reuters. The Guardian, meanwhile, features an op-ed by former PLO official Karma Nabulsi, in which she expresses her opposition to the Geneva Document because it fails, in her view, to adequately address the issue of Palestinian refugees. The Guardian, Reuters and the Financial Times all cover the passing of Israel’s 2004 state budget in the Knesset yesterday.

The contacts with Libya feature prominently in Israeli news coverage, with the Jerusalem Post noting Libyan denials that any contacts have taken place. Haaretz reports on support within military and political echelons for exploring further the possibility of talks with Syria. The paper also includes a leaked PA report revealing that suicide bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been timed to bring about specific political and diplomatic results. The front pages of the Israeli press are also dominated by coverage of the passing of the budget and responses to it. Maariv notes that the Histadrut labour federation is already threatening renewed industrial action.

Quotes of the Day:

On the need for practical moves by Syria

Shaul Mofaz, Defence Minister (Haaretz, 08/01): “My estimate is that the voices coming from Syria are first of all a distress call... If their intentions are so genuine, please, let them disarm Hezbollah and send them north, leave the Lebanese army deployed along the border, and take the terror headquarters out of Damascus - and then it will be possible to progress.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister (Haaretz, 08/01): “I think there is the opportunity today to explore possible contacts with Syria. Syria is a country with a despotic regime, which is trying to survive in the face of an historic wave that is removing such tyrants. They need peace with us like they need air to breathe. They need peace much more than we do. So the advantage has now moved completely to our side.”

EU seminar on anti-Semitism to go ahead

EU Commission President Romano Prodi, (International Herald Tribune, 08/01): “I believe we should confirm our desire to re-establish as soon as possible a fruitful cooperation with the Jewish organizations and, on this basis, to resume the preparations for the seminar.”

Separation will improve security

Shaul Mofaz, Defence Minister (Jerusalem Post, 08/01): “Separation would allow for an improvement in the security situation and will cause the other side to understand that they have to put an end to terrorism, and return to negotiations.”

Behind the News:

Contacts with Libya downplayed

Libyan officials flatly denied yesterday that any talks have taken place between Tripoli and Israel. Senior figures in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, were scathing in their criticism of the leaks to the press which have resulted in the contacts being made public. Reports of the talks have caused Israel ‘diplomatic damage,’ officials said. The Foreign Ministry would neither confirm nor deny reports that senior diplomat Ron Prosor met with an un-named Libyan official in Paris two weeks ago at the behest of FM Silvan Shalom, to explore possibilities of dialogue.

Libya’s new apparent openness has received mixed responses in Israel. Some officials in the Prime Minister’s Office caution against excessive optimism. They note that Libya, once a key backer of Arab and Islamic radicalism, has a clear interest in conciliatory gestures at the present time, given the new regional dispensation following the removal of Saddam Hussein. The prevailing view in the Foreign Ministry, by contrast, is that Gaddafi’s decision to end his WMD program indicates a real and substantive move away from previous positions, which Israel should do its best to explore and if possible benefit from. Foreign Ministry officials point to Gaddafi’s long history of willingness to challenge the Arab consensus, and pursue his own sometimes erratic path.

Opinions differ over Syrian offer

According to Haaretz, Defence sources have indicated that senior IDF figures differ in their assessment of Bashar Assad’s offer to renew negotiations with Israel. Head of Military Intelligence Aharon Zeevi considers that Assad’s offer represents a genuine shift in Syrian thinking, as a response to the changed strategic situation in the region following the US victory in Iraq. Zeevi notes in particular that Syrian officials in their latest statements have not mentioned the need for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines on the Golan Heights. The Syrian demand for this additional territorial concession has been the factor behind the breakdown of negotiations in the past. However, the Director of Research in Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser does not share Zeevi’s view. He contends that while the latest statements are indeed a response to the changed regional situation, they represent a merely tactical move on Syria’s part. In Kuperwasser’s estimation, the Syrian regime, in common with other radical regimes in the Middle East, fears US pressure, and is thus attempting to offset it by making seemingly conciliatory gestures lacking real content.

The policymaking echelon tends towards Kuperwasser’s view. Prime Minister Sharon does not apparently consider that Assad’s statements are sufficient to warrant renewed Israeli attention. He therefore intends to continue his focus on the Palestinian track. Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz is also opposed to negotiations on two fronts, and has expressed scepticism regarding Assad’s statements, which he said must be backed up by concrete moves reducing Damascus’ support for terror in order for progress to be possible.

Cancellation of antisemitism conference rescinded

In a press release issued yesterday afternoon, EU Commission President Romano Prodi rescinded his cancellation of the planned European Conference on antisemitism. The cancellation had been in response to sharp criticism of EU handling of renewed antisemitism in Europe, voiced by Jewish leaders Edgar Bronfman and Cobi Benatoff in an article in the Financial Times earlier this week. Prodi’s statement expresses the Commission’s desire to re-establish cooperation with the Jewish organisations and to resume the preparations for the seminar. He concludes, “We should not lose this chance of debating and facing an issue, the fight against anti-Semitism and all racisms, that goes to the very core of the project of a Europe built in peace and security as a 'Union of minorities’.”

Prodi’s cancellation of the conference has had the side effect of casting into bold relief differing views within the Italian establishment regarding the fight against anti-semitism. In a statement made yesterday before the cancellation was rescinded, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Fattini announced that if Prodi stood by his decision, the Italian government would offer to host the conference.

Is Hamas preparing to inherit the Palestinian Authority?

The Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs yesterday published a report by Jonathan Halevi on the prospect that Hamas may emerge as the leading Palestinian political movement in the post-Arafat period. According to Halevi, there is growing evidence that Fatah, the Palestinian faction that today dominates the PLO, may not remain the power center of Palestinian politics in the post-Arafat era and that Hamas is preparing itself to inherit the Palestinian Authority. (For full article, see: JCPA)

Comment and Opinion:

Barry Rubin (Jerusalem Post, 08/01): “Whatever problems it faces within Iraq, the US decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein is looking pretty good on the regional level. Made fearful by the overwhelming demonstration of US power, radical regimes feel the need for caution. While there has been no apparent effect on Palestinian behavior - and thus not on the Israel-Palestinian conflict - the result has been real or cosmetic changes in the policies of Iran, Libya, and Syria.

The problem, of course, is to differentiate between serious shifts and public relations gestures. Yet even phony moderation can have a good effect by reducing the aggressiveness of extremist regimes.

Each of the three remaining radical governments has reacted to the situation in its own way. Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the weakest and most eccentric, has made the biggest change. This is not the first time Gaddafi has responded to force by turning toward apparent moderation. He also did so for several years in the late 1980s after the US bombing of his country and home following a Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack that killed American soldiers in Germany. One can expect that his new orientation will also be temporary, though nonetheless welcome.

Iran's response has been to make a deal promising to abandon its drive for nuclear weapons and allow better inspections and restrictions on the atomic power plants it is building. This has been hailed as a major step forward by Teheran, even though there has been no change in the country's sponsorship of terrorism and open calls for Israel's destruction.”

“Teheran seems to feel, with a fair measure of accuracy, that the world can be fooled very easily by a few minor gestures. Syria is the most interesting. It is now surrounded by those its sponsorship of terrorism has antagonized - Israel, Turkey, and US forces in Iraq. Again, though, much of the response is cosmetic. The country's dictator, Bashar Assad, continues to sponsor terrorist groups, even refusing to implement his promises to the US to close their offices in Damascus. He is also concealing Iraqi money and military equipment and giving safe haven to former high-ranking officials in the Saddam regime.

Instead, he has embarked on a charm offensive. He has gone to Turkey to ease relations with that neighbor, against whom he long sponsored Kurdish terrorism. Assad has also spoken of negotiating with Israel about peace. This is the precise same strategy his father used when intimidated by the US victory over Saddam in 1991. The problem was that when Israel offered him his main demand, the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace, papa Assad turned it down. So while radical regimes try to assuage a determined US superpower, they will do the minimum that America and the world permits in changing their ways.”

Headlines:

Israel Briefing supplied by BICOM