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BICOM Daily Briefing January 13 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-13

In today's papers, The Independent carries an editorial looking at the prospects of peace between Israel and Syria, a story which is widely reported in the Israeli press. The Times and the Financial Times report on yesterday’s Knesset debate on unilateral disengagement and the growing pressure on PM Sharon both from left and right. In The Guardian’s G2 section, Chris McGreal discusses the political implications of water in the area, ahead of an Israeli deal with Turkey to purchase water.

The UK press also continues to debate the fallout of outspoken comments by Robert Kilroy-Silk, with Mark Steyn in the Daily Telegraph considering if similarly expressed anti-Israel comments would be so firmly dealt with, and Gavin Esler in the Scotsman reflecting on the state of Arab society.

In the Israeli press, all papers report on yesterday’s heated debate in the Knesset. Haaretz carries an assessment by US Senator Bill Nelson, who claims that Syrian President Assad is willing to restart negotiations with Israel "from scratch." However, Israel Radio reports that Syria will not agree to the resumption of talks, and that it claims that Israel has set "hundreds of preconditions." Yediot Ahronot reports that an EU delegation is to come to the area to investigate whether funding has been misappropriated to support terror against Israel.

Quotes of the Day:

Sharon reiterates "disengagement" stance in Knesset debate

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (12/01): “In a few months, we may come to the conclusion that the Palestinians continue to refuse our outstretched hand in peace and that they avoid fulfilling their obligations with regard to the road map. This scenario should not be ignored, and therefore we are preparing for it today. If we reach the point when we realize that all possibility of implementing the road map has been exhausted, we will have to take a series of steps to ensure maximum security for Israel's citizens and minimum friction with the Palestinian population.” (Haaretz)

Ariel Sharon (12/01): "Israel continues to be committed to the road map. I hope that logic in the Palestinian street will increase and the Palestinians will abandon the way of terror. If they do they will find in Israel a generous partner...and find their way to the family of nations." (Reuters)

Yemeni President calls for Arab world democracy

Ali Abdullah Saleh, (12/01): "Democracy is the choice of the modern age for all people of the world and the rescue ship for political regimes." (Daily Telegraph)

Behind the News:

Sharon wins Knesset endorsement of disengagement plan

In a stormy debate, Ariel Sharon yesterday told the Knesset that he would bring any decision made in the Cabinet regarding his plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinian territories for ratification by the Knesset. The debate ended in a vote, and the Prime Minister's announcement was approved 51 to 39.

However, the support was for a far softer stance than Sharon's speech at the Herzliya conference last month. Although the Prime Minister reiterated his determination to withdraw from the territories if the Palestinians did not fulfill their obligations under the Road Map, he did not repeat the territorial compromises that so enraged his right-wing coalition partners. The Labour-led opposition was quick to point out the softening of Sharon's stance. Leader of the Opposition Shimon Peres told the Knesset, “What you heard in Herzliya was a fairy tale. Moving settlements, transferring settlements - it has all been forgotten.”

EU delegation to investigate PA funding

According to Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, a European Union delegation is due to arrive in Israel in the coming days, in order to investigate whether European financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority was used to fund terror activities of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organisation. The investigation is apparently causing great embarrassment to the EU Commission, which for months denied that EU monies were being used to fund Palestinian terror against Israel. Senior Israeli sources yesterday wondered if the conclusions of the investigation will be publicized, and whether they will influence the continuation of transferring assistance to the Palestinians.

Arab pro-democracy conference draws 600 delegates to Yemen

More than 600 delegates from 40 countries and international organisations are meeting in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, to promote democratic change in the Arab world. Yemen, which introduced a multiparty parliamentary system in 1993, is the only working Arab democracy.

According to reports in the Daily Telegraph, the conference was organised in the wake of two reports from the United Nations Development Programme, which also co-sponsored the conference. The reports criticised the region's dictators for a lack of political freedom, blanket press censorship, discouraging their people from exploring the world of ideas, repressing women and stunting research in science and development.

Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, which all sent high-level delegations, are taking slow but concrete reform initiatives in the context of their cultural and religious heritage. All held at least partially free democratic elections last year, after decades of autocratic rule.

Comment and Opinion:

Mark Steyn (The Daily Telegraph, 13/01): “Let me see if I understand the BBC Rules of Engagement correctly: if you're Robert Kilroy-Silk and you make some robust statements about the Arab penchant for suicide bombing, amputations, repression of women and a generally celebratory attitude to September 11 - none of which is factually in dispute - the BBC will yank you off the air and the Commission for Racial Equality will file a complaint to the police which could result in your serving seven years in gaol. Message: this behaviour is unacceptable in multicultural Britain.

But, if you're Tom Paulin and you incite murder, in a part of the world where folks need little incitement to murder, as part of a non-factual emotive rant about how "Brooklyn-born" Jewish settlers on the West Bank "should be shot dead" because "they are Nazis" and "I feel nothing but hatred for them", the BBC will keep you on the air, kibitzing (as the Zionists would say) with the crème de la crème of London's cultural arbiters each week. Message: this behaviour is completely acceptable.

So, while the BBC is "investigating" Kilroy, its only statement on Mr Paulin was an oblique but curiously worded allusion to the non-controversy on the Corporation website: "His polemical, knockabout style has ruffled feathers in the US, where the Jewish question is notoriously sensitive." "The Jewish question"? "Notoriously sensitive"? Is this really how they talk at the BBC?

Mr Paulin's style is only metaphorically knockabout. But, a few days after his remarks were published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, some doughty Palestinian "activists" rose to his challenge and knocked about some settlers more literally, murdering among others five-year-old Danielle Shefi. In a touch of symbolism the critic in Mr Paulin might have found a wee bit obvious, they left her Mickey Mouse sheets soaked in blood.”

Gavin Esler (The Scotsman, 13/01): “The problem, of course, is that Arab culture is at a dangerous turning point. Arab regimes often do not share the confidence of their people. There are no fully-functioning Arab democracies. And Arab societies are torn between nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and those who want urgently to modernise and democratise Arab society. Everywhere, Arabs themselves are in a ferment of debate about their own futures, about the role of women, about westernisation, democratisation, a free press and their relationship with the West.

There are, in fact, great opportunities for the Arab world over the next few years, but also profound dangers: youth unemployment, young disaffected but often well- educated populations, and a legacy of the official toleration of intolerant and extremist ideas.

I wonder if Arabs and Muslims who live in Britain, France and the United States can play a key role in bridging the gulf between Arab, Muslim and western cultures, explaining one to the other? People from different cultures are a great strength in this country, if we have the wit to use them.”

The Independent (13/01): “A flurry of increasingly public and decreasingly diplomatic exchanges between Syria and Israel appears to have ended with both sides stalking off in a huff. Syrian officials dismissed the Israeli President's invitation to talks in Jerusalem as "evasive", "problematic" and a "media manoeuvre", while President Katsav retorted that his Syrian opposite number, Bashar Assad, was not made of the same stuff as the late Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat.

The hurt responses are understandable. Both the Syrian leader, by first broaching the resumption of the peace talks that were broken off in 2000, and the Israeli head of state, by making public his invitation evidently without the support of the Prime Minister, were taking a risk. Nor can it be excluded that they were following a script that had been drafted by others. By officials in Washington, perhaps, who may be looking to advance a peace agreement, with - or, if necessary, without - Ariel Sharon. Or by the US and Europe acting in concert: the Syrian foreign minister met an EU mediator at the weekend to reiterate his country's interest in picking up the 2000 talks where they left off.

Whether there was third-party involvement or not, each side was undoubtedly acting as much out of self-interest as out of any greater vision for bilateral, let alone regional, peace. Mr Assad's position is weaker now than this time last year; he needs better relations with his neighbours and with Washington. In inviting him to Jerusalem, Mr Katsav was articulating the desire of a growing constituency inside Mr Sharon's government to respond to Syria's overtures, recognising that its current weakness might present an opportunity for Israel that should not be wasted.

Yesterday's irritated exchanges may suggest that the moment has been squandered. Yet the very fact that the heads of state of Syria and Israel - two countries still technically at war - were even considering a meeting was a step forward and this setback need not be the end of the story. All those concerned to foster peace in the region, starting with the US and the EU, should do their utmost to ensure that it is rather the beginning.”


Israel briefing supplied by BICOM