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BICOM Daily Briefing January 22 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-22

All British newspapers give extensive coverage to the bribery indictment issued yesterday to an Israeli businessman, which may involve Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert. The story also dominates the domestic news agenda, with Haaretz carrying excerpts of the indictment. Reuters notes a meeting between Yasser Arafat and Foreign Office Minister Baroness Symons at the start of her three-day visit to the Palestinian Authority. The Guardian discusses the controversial art installation in Sweden, which enraged the Israeli Ambassador to Sweden last weekend. The paper also carries an obituary of Tom Hurndall. The Financial Times notes US and Turkish initiatives to extend the NATO alliance to 6 Middle East countries, including Israel.

Quoting Arab daily, Al-Hayat, Maariv reports on Saudi efforts to gather support for a new Arab peace initiative. Yediot Ahronot quotes an aide of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, according to whom Syria would be willing to start negotiations from scratch if Israel does not set any preconditions. The Jerusalem Post reports that Yasser Arafat has ordered an investigation into financial wrongdoing and the embezzlement of millions of dollars in the PA Ministry of Sports and Youth and the Ministry of Transportation.

Quotes of the Day:

Syria’s messages are not clear

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (21/01, Maariv): “On one hand, Assad talks peace and on the other hand he uses his long arm - Hezbollah - in order to heat up our northern border.”

Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz (21/01, Haaretz): “Syria is conducting affairs illegitimately and it must understand that a call for peace on one hand and support for terror organisations on the other hand do not go together.”

UK Middle East Minister visits PA

Baroness Symons, Foreign Office Minister responsible for the Middle East (21/01, FCO press release): “I am pleased to be making my first visit to the Occupied Territories. It is important for me to see the situation there and meet the Palestinian leadership. Achieving a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians is a priority for the British Government.”

Speculation as to Sharon’s political future

Ariel Sharon (21/01, Yediot Ahronot): “I am carrying on with work as normal and I have no intention of resigning.”

Assaf Shariv, spokesman for Sharon (21/01, Associated Press): "I can guarantee there will not be an indictment."

Roni Bar-On, Likud MK (21/01, Haaretz): "If the prosecution isn't accusing Sharon, they should close the case right now."

Shimon Peres, Labour Chairman (21/01, Haaretz): “I have been a friend of Arik's for more than 50 years, and I don't deny this. Although we are political opponents, we are not personal rivals. Israel is in a difficult time and the situation requires the prime minister to give the people his version."

On reform in the Arab world

Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League (21/01, Reuters) “If they (Americans) want to produce democracy in the Middle East, they'd better do it first in Iraq as they promised. We are not against democracy, but it is not an act or an order to be immediately implemented. It is a process that I believe we have started.”

Colin Powell (21/1, WPHT Radio Philadelphia): “If [the Arab world is] just going to take their young people and put them in these madrassas, these schools that do nothing but indoctrinate them in the worst aspects of a religion, then they are shorting themselves, they are leaving themselves back as well as teaching hatred that will not help us bring peace to the region, and will not help their societies.”

Behind the News:

IDF moves to decrease tension on the northern border

According to a high-ranking IDF General Staff quoted in Haaretz this morning, the Hezbollah attack on IDF troops earlier in the week was a localised event, and not coordinated with Damascus. Thus, there was no reason for the IDF to respond by launching a strike against Syria. “But this doesn't mean we won't attack in Syria next time, if there was justification,” he said. According to the source, the IDF views the air strikes in Lebanon that followed the attack as successful and as a localised and limited response that did not provoke further Hezbollah escalation of the situation in the north. The army reported precision hits on Hezbollah bases near the villages of Zebqin and Wadi Sluqi located 10 to 15 kilometers north of the Israeli border.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern on Wednesday about military activity in southern Lebanon and urged Israel and Lebanon to show restraint and halt all attacks across their shared border.

Indictment in bribery case may involve Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert

Tel Aviv Magistrates Court yesterday issued an indictment against a businessman on charges of attempting to bribe Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The indictment charged businessman David Appel with offering bribes to promote a holiday resort on a Greek island, during Sharon’s term as foreign minister in 1999. The indictment also states that Appel employed Sharon's son Gilad as a marketing consultant in order to influence his father, at the time foreign minister, to intercede with Greek authorities. The prime minister was questioned last year about the allegations. He denies any wrongdoing.

According to a poll commissioned for Haaretz this morning, 64% of public believes that Sharon must resign if it is clear that he is involved in the bribery affair. In a readers’ poll in the Jerusalem Post, 63% believe that Ariel Sharon should not be indicted.

NATO extends reach to MENA

According to reports in the Financial Times, NATO will invite six Middle East and North African countries, including Egypt and Israel, to a summit in Istanbul in June as part of a proposal to enlarge the "Partnership for Peace" programme to include other countries close to the US. Other Arab countries under consideration include Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar. Partnership for Peace has in the past included joint military exercises as well as civil co-operation programmes. The plan, known as the "Greater Middle East" initiative, would be a significant shift for an alliance which until now has comprised only North American and European members.

Comment and Opinion:

Jonathan Jones (The Guardian, 22/01): “To me, her smile is grotesque. She floats there, the Mona Lisa of mayhem, her photograph forming the sail of a little toy boat on a pool of blood. The pool is half-frozen, and the blood seeps into the pure white snow covering the courtyard garden. People gather in quiet, serious groups; TV cameras attend the Swedish minister of culture as she, too, looks quietly, seriously, at the gory pond.”

“Art vandalism is always a good story. Art vandalism by an ambassador against an artwork in the country with which he is employed to maintain diplomatic relations is something rarer - a new story. And this one just keeps growing. Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, has publicly supported his ambassador, with some enthusiasm. "I think Zvi Mazel behaved in an appropriate way," Sharon announced. "I called ... and thanked him for his stand against the growing wave of anti-semitism."

Passion is always attractive; reports around the world, especially in the Israeli and American press, have found in Mazel a popular hero, the undiplomatic diplomat, the man who decided to do something more committed than have a quiet word behind the scenes over the smorgasbord. The Jerusalem Post added a nuanced art-critical element by arguing that Israel's ambassador to Sweden should be acknowledged as a performance artist, and that his action was a "moral" work of art worth far more than the "banal" installation he damaged.

But none of these people has gone to Sweden, to look at the installation Snow White and the Madness of Truth by Gunilla Sköld Feiler and Dror Feiler, and see what all the fuss is about. So here I was, in the snow, trudging up to Sweden's equivalent of the British Museum ("But a lot smaller", its director admits). It is not some confrontational contemporary art space - in fact it is best known for its display of Viking rune stones. And so the first thing that strikes you is the excitement in the air. The place is embattled, exhilarated, with artists, publicists, directors and government ministers running around, while Swedes in droves have come to see for themselves why the museum has been declared an enemy of Israel.

The offending installation - rapidly restored after Mazel's attack - is out of doors, in a courtyard garden. The garden is rather beautiful. A tree, winter flowers still in bloom and, at the centre of the enclosed retreat, a rectangle full of blood.

The icy air heightens the impact of what might otherwise seem a fragile work at best. Bach's Cantata 199, Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut (My Heart Swims in Blood), fills the courtyard with its keening. The beauty of the music completes the bizarre nature of the scene - and I don't mean only the installation, but ourselves as participants, wearing appropriate expressions, wondering what is a suitable response to a pool of blood. Someone explains that the de-icer in the liquid hasn't worked properly, but the lumps of red ice add to the effect.

It's horrible, it's sick, but I can't for one moment accept that it is an apology for a suicide bomber. Everyone interprets art differently. That's what makes it art. If this were a propaganda work, the museum would have a case to answer - maybe. But it's not. It's in very poor taste, if you like, but is there a tasteful way to talk about terrorism? About people disintegrating into bits of flesh? Which is what, to me, that chunky pool suggests.

My feeling about the face at the centre of all this, that of the bomber, is one of gross irony: that she is more famous than the people she killed. That photograph was circulated widely after the atrocity in Haifa last October; we've all seen it before. The flimsy cosmetic prettiness of the picture is what jars. That lipstick.”

Amos Harel (Haaretz, 22/01): “This was the year in which the IDF learned to recognize the limits of its power. Dreams of a decisive victory in the conflict with the Palestinians, or at least of leaving some lasting impression on its rival, have been replaced by a sober understanding that the conflict will continue for a long time, and that all that Israel can do is to focus on finding ways to conduct it with a minimum of damage and casualties.

Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon had a great plan. For a brief moment, last June and July, it even seemed to be working. The successes of the IDF and the Shin Bet security services in fighting terrorism, the attacks on senior members of Hamas, the strong military pressure on the Palestinian Authority, American (and even European) support for Israel's accusations against PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, the swift and crushing victory of the United States over the Iraqi army - all these were supposed to, according to Ya'alon, bring about a real internal change in the PA.

The Israelis and the Palestinians would adopt the Bush administration's "road map," the PA would achieve a temporary cease-fire with the terrorist organizations, and Arafat would leave the stage, or at least would retreat to the wings, in order to make way for a successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The new prime minister of the PA, whose objections to terrorism and violence are well known, would restrain the suicide attacks and perhaps at a later stage, with the help of his determined adviser Mohammed Dahlan, would even confront the organizations head on, just as Arafat did in the spring of 1996.

Ya'alon hoped that the plan would work out, although he was aware of the difficulties and took into account the possibility of failure. The hopes did in fact collapse with a bang, within less than two months, with the murderous attack on Bus No. 2 in Jerusalem, which was transporting ultra-Orthodox worshipers on their way back from the Western Wall. Israel blamed Hamas and of course Arafat, who continually placed obstacles in the way of his chosen prime minister.”