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BICOM Daily Briefing January 12 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-12

The Guardian today publishes an article about a right wing demonstration last night in Tel Aviv. Also in today’s Guardian is a piece by Ian Black on renewed antisemitism in Europe. Over the weekend, the paper published an op-ed by Jocelyn Hurndall, mother of British pro-Palestinian activist Thomas Hurndall. The Sunday Telegraph published a piece by Kevin Myers criticising EU policy toward Israel. The row over Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article in the Daily Express, meanwhile, continues to generate responses, with the Times, Reuters, The Guardian and Sky News today covering this. The Financial Times publishes a letter defending Israel’s policies toward its own Arab citizens. Over the weekend, this paper also ran pieces dealing with Israeli scepticism toward Syrian overtures and an article looking at Palestinian plans for a possible unilateral declaration of statehood. Reuters also devotes an article to Israeli scepticism toward Syrian intentions, while the BBC includes an analysis of what it calls Israel’s ‘Golan options.’

In the Israeli press, the four main papers - Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, Maariv and Yediot Ahronot, all lead with last night’s right wing rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Maariv also features a story detailing Hamas’ objections to Abu Ala’s calls for a ‘one state solution.’ The Jerusalem Post has an interview with Ehud Olmert, in which he states that Israeli unilateral moves are set to begin in June, in the absence of diplomatic progress prior to that date. Haaretz contains a number of news and op-ed articles focusing on differing opinions regarding Syrian intentions, and various aspects of this issue. The paper also contains a report on the cancellation of a conference involving senior Israeli and Palestinian participants, that was to have begun in Ireland today.

Behind the News:

Discussions on talks with Syria continue

The question of Israel’s response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s proposals to resume negotiations continues to dominate the Israeli debate. During an interview to Israel Radio on Monday, President Moshe Katsav invited Assad to visit Jerusalem, with no preconditions. Katsav said Israel was not clear on Syria's opening negotiating position but that if Assad was seriously willing to start talks from "point zero," he should go through diplomatic channels and even invite Israeli leaders to Damascus. However, Syrian Minister for Immigrant Affairs Buthaina Sha'aban said in interview to the BBC on Monday that there was no doubt that Assad would reject the invitation.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Sunday that Israel would be happy to begin peace talks with Syria, but only if Syria first ends its support for terrorist organisations. According to Haaretz, Sharon, who was speaking with foreign correspondents in Jerusalem, said: “I believe that what should be done is that Syria should stop the help and support for terrorist agents, and if that happens, I believe Israel will be ready.” The prime minister added that Israel, as a peace-loving nation, was naturally interested in talks with Syria, but questioned whether Damascus really wanted peace, or was merely trying to ease the American pressure it was currently under. Any talks must begin without preconditions, Sharon said.

At the Cabinet meeting on Sunday, differences of opinion emerged among ministers. Justice Minister Yosef Lapid suggested that Israel agree to the negotiations, while insisting that the cessation of Syrian support for terror groups be a pre-condition for their resumption. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom observed that the US shares Israel’s concerns regarding Syrian support for Hizballah, and the presence of terrorist bases around Damascus. Damascus made commitments to deal with these aspects last year and has not yet done so. The Americans are also concerned at Syria’s ‘open border’ with Iraq, and the flow of Islamist fighters across it. Nevertheless, Shalom added, the US would not be opposed to Israel testing the Syrian overtures, an option which he himself also favours.  Prime Minister Sharon and Defence Minister Mofaz nevertheless insisted that Syria must understand that talks and support for terrorism cannot go together. Mofaz added that the effect of the war in Iraq was to place the Syrians under pressure, and that this was pushing Assad toward opening dialogue. The implication of Mofaz’ words was that since Israel has the stronger hand to play, it should proceed with caution, rather than hastily granting Assad the stamp of legitimacy that an opening of talks would afford him.

For further analysis of prospects of peace with Syria and other regional developments, see BICOM Weekend Brief 10-11 January 2004.

Mass right wing demonstration in Tel Aviv

Some 120,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square last night, to protest against the Sharon government’s plans for unilateral withdrawals and the dismantling of illegal outposts in the territories. Demonstrators were addressed by Minister without portfolio Uzi Landau, National Religious Party Chairman Effi Eitam and other prominent right-wing personalities. Eitam announced that the NRP would resign from the government in the event of the Prime Minister’s ‘disengagement’ plan being implemented. Eitam also declared his opposition to all withdrawal from the Golan Heights. A number of prominent Likud figures attended the rally, including Knesset Chairman Reuven Rivlin and other Likud MKs. Responding to the demonstrators’ demands, the Prime Minister remarked that only the government was responsible for making policy.

Peace conference in Ireland postponed

A conference scheduled to begin today in Ireland, which was to have been attended by Israeli and Palestinian parliamentary delegations, has been postponed, after the Shin Bet vetoed the attendance of one of the members of the Palestinian delegation, saying he posed a security risk. The PA then withdrew its support for the event.

Minister without Portfolio Uzi Landau (Likud), Labour MK Haim Ramon and Shinui MK Ilan Leibowitz, were to represent Israel at the conference. The PA was to be represented by Fatah members Jibril Rajoub, Ziyad Abu Ziyad and Mohammed Hijazi, as well as independent members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The event was to have been addressed by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Aherne, and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen. Ireland currently holds the Presidency of the European Union.

Libya to permit visit of Israelis

Maariv reports that Libyan authorities have given the go-ahead for a number of Israelis to visit the country, to attend a reunion meeting of a school they attended in Benghazi. An organiser of the trip told Maariv that a senior Libyan official (thought to be Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam) had said to him that the Libyan authorities regard Libyan born Israelis as a ‘bridge to peace.’

Comment and Opinion:

Alex Brummer (The Observer, 11/01): “Although Israel holds a special place in the hearts of Anglo-Jewry, the attitudes of British Jews do not differ very much from the rest of the nation. We are as concerned about the purpose, direction and construction of the security fence, snaking its way south through the Palestinian territories, as the broad mass of UK public opinion. The difference is that we are willing to hear and listen to what the Israeli leadership has to say about the fence before jumping to the conclusion that it is a permanent barrier - a new Berlin Wall - cutting through Arab olive groves and entrapping Palestinians in their townships. The security fence, seam line or wall, as its enemies like to describe it, has taken on a life of its own as an issue. Poor Israeli public relations have meant that at times the 200km barrier (of which 8km are concrete) has become a new symbol of Israel oppression. It has been condemned by President Bush and in Britain. Both nations have cooled their protests now that its purpose is better understood. The fence has been referred to the Court of Human Rights in the Hague after heavy lobbying by the Palestinians and their supporters at the United Nations.

It is also seen by some as complicating plans by Sharon for separation of the Jewish and Palestinian populations by creating a de facto border, inside Palestinian territory, which will be impossible to shift if there is a final settlement between Israel and a new Palestinian state. The reason why Americans and our own Foreign Office now look more benignly at the fence is because they understand it better. It is not electric (as has often been reported) but electronic, using sophisticated technology to detect breaches. Israeli security services, police and intelligence believe it has been highly effective in preventing terrorism breaches. Israel has agreed to open a network of gates and offers transport to schoolchildren who need to cross the fence to go about their daily business.”

“Many questions remain unresolved and it is still doubtful that Israel will ever retreat to the 1948 Green Line which leaves towns like Netanya, a popular seaside resort, in cannon-firing distance of Palestine. What is unmistakable, however, is the change in the political consensus with Sharon acknowledging that a Greater Israel no longer makes demographic or political sense. The peace which Sharon envisages may be an uneasy one which cuts Palestine adrift from the trade routes to the Mediterranean and leaves it more dependent on Jordan and the Arab world. It would also lack the legitimacy of the kind of negotiated settlement which Labour leaders believe is essential. What is clear is that, with or without Palestinian agreement, Israel now sees a two-state solution as the only option. Without it, Israel's struggle to protect its democracy and human values and its status as a place of refuge for the dispossessed Jews of the world will be lost.”

Kevin Myers (The Sunday Telegraph, 11/01): “A terrible stench of cowardice hangs over the decision by the European Commission's president, Romano Prodi, not to proceed with a conference on anti-Semitism in Europe. Ostensibly, this is because of the condemnation from Jewish groups for its refusal to publish its own report on the rise of violent anti-Semitism across the EU, while choosing to publish an opinion poll which shows that most Europeans - idiotically - think that Israel is the greatest threat to world peace. The real reason for this rank spinelessness is that the Commission doesn't want to admit that the main source of anti-Semitism in Europe these days emanates from immigrant Muslim communities.

One doesn't have to agree with all the stinging criticisms by the World Jewish Congress and European Jewish Congress of the European Commission's suppression of one report and publication of another. Their main point is irrefutable. Moreover, underlying the abject EU failure to confront anti-Semitism is another, less visible truth: the Palestinian Authority, which receives millions of euros from the EU annually, vigorously promotes explicit anti-Semitism in its schools and on television. In other words, the EU directly funds anti-Semitism.

Furthermore, the Commission reflects a widespread EU woolliness about the Middle East. Most Europeans apparently think that there is some simple path to peace: that if the Israelis lighten up on security here, and the Palestinian Authority cracks down (ha!) on extremists there, the West Bank would soon be like The Sound of Music. More probably, some school-bus packed with Jewish children is blown to smithereens.”

Ian Black (The Guardian, 12/01): “Israel is not in the same league as theocratic Iran or Stalinist North Korea. But its conflict with the Palestinians is more bloody and intractable than ever. Millions of Europeans see the results of Hamas suicide bombings and Israel's "targeted assassinations" on television every night. It is also beyond dispute that attacks on Jews have increased, especially in France, since the second intifada erupted in 2000, and that many - as the Vienna survey found - were perpetrated by youths of Arab or Muslim origin. This must be kept in perspective. Europe's Jews are not generally subjected to the sort of comments that have landed Robert Kilroy-Silk in trouble with Arabs. Islamophobia is a bigger problem than anti-semitism.”

“But there is something nasty in the air that links the grim banlieues of Paris with sophisticated salon discourse and the "cabal" of influential pro-Israeli neo-conservatives in the Bush administration. Of course, it suits the US right to raise the ghosts of Vichy and paint wimpish "old Europe" as the same continent where 6 million Jews were exterminated. Anyone who understands contemporary Europe - and three cheers here for the EU as peace project - knows how wrong that is. And yet the past is not another country. Half an hour from the EC's headquarter's are the barracks at Mechelen, where 40,000 Belgian Jews were put on cattle trucks to the gas chambers. Imagine the resonance when France's chief rabbi advises his flock not to wear skullcaps in the street; when anti-semitic incidents in the Netherlands, documented by the Anne Frank foundation, more than double despite an overall drop in racist and rightwing violence. Clearly, no one should confuse criticism of Ariel Sharon's policies with "old-fashioned" hatred of Jews. Most do not. But there is no doubt that boundaries have been eroded.”

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