Thursday, March 31, 2005

A step too far

In the past week PM Sharon's political machinations have borne fruit. Most
importantly, he had the 2005 budget passed by the Knesset with a comfortable
majority of 58 to 36. He staved off the referendum bill on the
disengagement plan, that was defeated by a similar majority, and before that
he had the actual disengagement authorization bill passed, that allows the
Government to pay for the costs of evacuating the settlements, including
reparations to the settlers, and redeployment of the IDF. Given the
complexities of the situation and the strong opposition of a well organized
settler movement and part of his own right wing Likud Party, this is no mean
But, at the very end, a day after the budget vote, Sharon made one step too
many. He had the cabinet vote for the appointment of 3 new Ministers and 5
new Deputy Ministers. This caused a strong political reaction on all sides
of the Knesset, since they had just passed an austerity budget,
significantly cutting all social programs, and here Sharon was asking them
to approve the costs that go with these appointments, including offices,
secretaries, cars and drivers, etc. etc. coming to hundreds of thousands of
shekels. And these appointments could not be disguised as anything but
payoffs for those (mainly Likud) members who supported his programs. This
was the most stark of political payoffs, in which some of the appointees are
new members of the Knesset with no experience, and would result in the
largest Cabinet in Israeli history. The appointments of the Ministers (two
Likud, one Labor) were immediately rejected by the Knesset, although the
Deputy Ministers do not need Knesset approval. The feeling was that Sharon
had taken one step too far, and exceeded even his big appetite.
Nevertheless, Sharon has bought himself a final year in office, that will
see the Gaza disengagement plan proceed starting in July.
Although no-one managed to defeat Sharon, Finance Minister Netanyahu mounted
a belated opposition to the disengagement plan, not strong enough to defeat
it, but enough to let the right wing of the Likud Party know that he is
still there and is their future champion. This was seen as a naked attempt
to start his campaign as the natural successor to Sharon, as a means to
appeal to the rank and file of the Likud Party.
The settler and right wing opponents to disengagement are split between
those who reluctantly accept that the Plan will go ahead and that they will
have to cooperate with the IDF and the Govt. and those that still intend to
fight the Plan and some of whom are prepared to use force. This will
certainly be one of the severest tests of Israeli statehood. It has been
reported that some right wing extremists have been moving into the Gaza
settlements, and there is a proposal to take away the Gaza settler's guns in
order to avoid shooting incidents, but that would be a very dangerous task,
and they are not likely to agree voluntarily.
Meanwhile Israel drew again with France in soccer, with a 1:1 score, and
once again the Israeli goal was scored late in the game by an Israel Arab,
Walid Badier. The success of the Israeli Arabs in the Israeli national
soccer team should be a source of pride, not only because of their
abilities, but because they are so apparently well integrated into the team.
Their positive statements after the matches leaves great hope that the two
peoples can indeed co-exist and work together. They represent the far end
of the spectrum of Arab culture from the terrorists that we have all been
forced to focus on in the past few years.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Political jigsaw

The budget, the referendum, the disengagement and politics have all become
so entangled in a complex maze that it is almost impossible to understand
and to follow on a daily basis.
Last night a key piece in the jig-saw puzzle was put into place when the
leader of the Shinui Party Tommy Lapid finally agreed to support the
Sharon/Netanyahu state budget for 2005 with his 14 votes. So that now one
can confidently state that the budget will pass, and as a consequence so
will the disengagement plan, probably without a referendum.
The cost to the electorate was not cheap, a case of politics as usual.
First, Sharon switched his coalition and obtained the support of the Labor
and leftist parties for disengagement in exchange for his lapsed right wing
support. Then he "bribed" the small religious parties (UTJ and others) to
support him with a payment of 290 million shekels towards the cost of their
kindergartens and other interests. Since he did this, the anti-religious
Shinui Party bolted the coalition, but has now also been "bribed" to give
their support with a payment of NIS m600 towards their favorite interests,
the students, the universities and social issues. And only just in time, 3
days before the deadline.
The fact that this agreement was finalized after the two leaders, Sharon and
Lapid, watched the Ireland-Israel soccer match together, that Israel managed
to draw in the last minute 1-1, may have helped Lapid's decision.
Incidentally the scorer of the crucial goal was an Israeli Arab, Abas Suan,
one of several on the team. It's like Sharon managed to score a last minute
goal to save his government.
One of the main reasons Lapid folded was that he did not want to be the one
that prevented not only the budget passing, but if the Government had been
defeated it would have resulted in a new election and therefore the
disengagement from Gaza would have been at least long delayed or more likely
thwarted forever. Since this has happened now, the supporters of the
referendum to decide whether or not there should be a disengagement from
Gaza have been outflanked and the issue may have become moot. This will not
please the Likud rebels or the settlers who had hoped to fatally delay the
plan with a referendum. Although Finance Minister Netanyahu will be happy
his budget will be passed, he was also a supporter of a referendum, and so
he may have lost that round. In order not to disrupt his budget he has
declared that the extra payments of NIS m890 will have to come from already
assigned ministerial budgets.
So now the road looks clear, the budget will pass, the referendum will be
defeated and the disengagement from Gaza will go ahead. The re-statement
of support for Israeli retention of densely Jewish populated areas of the
West Bank into Israel by Condoleeza Rice (clarifying the commitment after
the reports of US Ambassador Kurzer's statements) will help Sharon in
bolstering support for the disengagement, seen as part of the price Israel
must pay for this support. Nevertheless, in such a complex situation little
is clear and nothing can be taken for granted.

Friday, March 25, 2005


You've heard the saying attributed to Andy Warhol that eventually everyone
will be famous for 15 mins, well here is the geographical equivalent, every
place will eventually become the center of the world's attention for a short
time span.
It started during WWII with the development of communications when some
obscure places saw their profile raised, such as Yalta, Monte Cassino and
Guadalcanal, to mention just a few . Then some names that had hardly been
heard of before popped up and grabbed the headlines, Saigon,
Sharm-al-Sheikh, and more recently Kabul. Now its the turn of Kyrgyzstan in
Central Asia with Bishkek (!) its capital.
Kyrgyzstan is the third former Soviet Republic that achieved independence,
after Georgia and more recently Ukraine, to undergo a popular uprising,
truly a revolution. The main difference is that whereas the two previous
"people power" uprisings were peaceful, this one turned out to be violent.
The anti-Government uprising started in the south against the recent
probably fraudulent re-election of Askar Akayev as President again after
about 12 years in power. Although Akayev started out as a liberal
communist, he has retained power through a combination of corruption and
intimidation, and the economy of the country has stagnated. The people of
Kyrgyzstan are impoverished and want a better future.
The irony is that of the ca. 5 million population 70% are Muslim. Years ago
when the USSR was breaking up some of us predicted that Central Asia would
become the focus of extremist Muslim activity and would follow Iran to
become Islamist States. The opposite seems to have happened. If Kyrgyzstan
does not descend into chaos with the removal of Akayev, then the people
there clearly want greater democratization.
The main threat to stability now is the lack of an obvious candidate to be
the new leader, and the possibility of inter-ethnic strife, given that
Kyrgyzstan has a number of large minorities (Russian, Uzbek, Tajik, etc.).
The US is interested in Kyrgyzstan because it has a large air base there
supporting the actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia is certainly
interested in seeing stability in Kyrgyzstan. The question is if it does
indeed stabilize and become more democratic, will this affect the fate of
the authoritarian rulers in other Central Asian and former Soviet Republics.
Who could have predicted this spreading outcome? Bush more than Lenin.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Double strategy

There are two basic Israeli/Jewish views of the current status of the
conflict with the Palestinian Arabs. One extreme, the right, says that the
Arabs are only interested in destroying Israel and any apparent move by them
towards peace is a tactic, meant to improve their position, and so we should
not be tricked into it. Any concession, particularly the so-called
disengagement from Gaza, is a withdrawal under fire that will only encourage
them to continue terrorism.
The other extreme, the left, sees moderation on the other side, Palestinians
who really want to co-exist, who are tired of war and losing their sons etc.
and are ready for peace as long as our side (the stronger side) makes
concessions in land, that is less important than people. These Israelis see
the inevitability of eventual co-existence and a Palestinian state and are
eager to embrace that now (hence 'Peace Now').
In fact, the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes, and there is
not one Arab or Palestinian position, there are many. There is little doubt
that there is a distinction between Pres. Abbas of the PA, who proclaims he
wants a peaceful solution via the Road Map, and the Islamist rejectionists,
who only want a continuation of the armed struggle against Israel. While
the current "calm" of low level (although continuing) violence can be said
to be a strategy for Abbas, it is only a tactic for the terrorist
The question is how can Israel exploit this situation to both defeat the
aims of the terrorists while enhancing the aims of the moderates? There are
two answers to this question, a double-pronged response to the two distinct
trends. Israel must be prepared to use the IDF to defeat the former, while
making concessions to support the latter. In fact, this is what PM Sharon
is doing. The targeted attacks against the terrorists have caused them
enormous damage and has blunted their capability. Ideally Abbas would now
be doing this instead of Israel, but he has so far refused to take action.
On the other hand, in order to seize the initiative away from the
Palestinians and remove our dependency on their decisions, PM Sharon has
conceived the Gaza first Disengagement Plan. This is intended to accept a
reality, that in any foreseeable solution the Palestinians will not agree to
have Jewish settlements in Gaza, and by removing our settlers and armed
forces now we are reducing the friction (of daily shelling etc.) and showing
what a future settlement could bring the Palestinians. The threat of this
unilateral withdrawal has so undermined the strategy of the Palestinian
political class (Fatah) that they are scrambling to be involved in
coordination of the move. By voluntarily giving up part of the land that
few Israelis want to keep, Sharon has undermined the major criticism of
Israel, that the so-called "occupation" is the cause of the violence in the
first place.
However, make no mistake about it, Sharon does not intend to
withdraw/disengage from other more important and densely Jewish populated
areas of the West Bank. This is the price he is expecting the Palestinians
to pay for his readiness to accommodate them elsewhere. Of course, he does
not expect them to readily agree, but with the explicit support of Pres.
Bush for "modifications" in the borders to accomodate "current realities",
this is what Sharon intends.
At the same time it could be said that the Arab States are becoming more
moderate too. The fact that they are prepared to adopt a resolution at
their current Arab League conference in Algiers that would give recognition
to Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the territories looks good
at face value, and is certainly something that could never have occurred a
few years ago. But, why did King Abdullah of Jordan, who initially proposed
such a resolution, decide not to attend the meeting? Because the extremists
(Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, etc.) insisted in tying recognition to a full
withdrawal of Israel from ALL the territories, as well as the return of
refugees, etc. In other words acceptance by Israel of all Palestinian/Arab
demands. So in fact this is a step backward, because whereas last year the
Saudis presented this plan as take it or leave it, now all the Arab States
have tied recognition of Israel to the implementation of this plan, which
leaves no room for compromise and negotiation. Certainly this is something
that Israel cannot accept, and even the Palestinians would find it difficult
to be tied to what the other Arab States have decided for them. The US will
also see this as a trap, and hopefully will support Israel in ignoring it,
since it runs counter to their Road Map plan.
So we continue in a neverland of fluidity where each side makes moves that
cannot satisfy the other, but may lead towards a better situation. Israel
is turning over West Bank cities to PA security control, the calm persists,
at least for now, and most Israelis are holding their breath and waiting to
see. Anything could unbalance the precarious situation, but the overall
positive trend that cannot be readily perceived will continue.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Iranian axis

The final remaining existential threat to the State of Israel is the Iranian
axis, including Syria and Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. This is not to say
that all the other Arab combatants have made peace with Israel, but at least
two have signed peace treaties, Jordan and Egypt, and at the upcoming Arab
League meeting King Abdullah of Jordan will present an improved peace treaty
based on the Saudi plan of last year, that he will ask all of the Arab
League members to endorse. This Treaty will not be acceptable to Israel,
but at least they are moving in the right direction.
This cannot be said of Iran that is still surreptitiously developing atomic
weapons to use on you know who (as Tom Lehrer said). The US has put Iran
on notice, accept an agreement with the European group and stop the
development of weapons grade material, or expect UN sanctions, and possibly
other actions.
This week PM Sharon is going to the US where he will meet Pres. Bush at his
ranch. Sharon may be the only other world leader who also owns and runs a
ranch. Their main topic of conversation will be what to do with Iran. It
is unlikely that the Mullahs will back down, and so it may become necessary
for Israel or the US to strike at the Iranian weapons sites. However, this
will be a lot more difficult than when Israel destroyed the Osiris reactor
in Baghdad in 1988. The Iranian sites are scattered around and there are
more of them and they are better protected (underground, etc.). There is no
doubt that Israel will receive the world's condemnation if it does this
strike, but now the crucial decision is to have US backing. If Sharon is
satisfied by Bush's support, then if Iran does not change its policies
within 9 months expect a strong Israeli military strike against Iran.
The threat from Syria fades in comparison with that from Iran, but
nevertheless Syria is formally allied to Iran, and it harbors the
headquarters of most of the Palestinian terrorist groups in Damascus. PM
Abbas has offered that they should all return to Gaza once the IDF has left
under the disengagement plan. That would make Gaza a mini-terrorist state,
which it is in fact already. As exhibition of this fact was the inability
of PM Abbas and Pres. Mubarak of Egypt to persuade the 13 terrorist groups
in their meeting in Cairo last week to do any more than accept a conditional
"calm" up to the end of the year, in place of the open-ended ceasefire that
was expected. It is clear that Abbas does not control the situation in
Syria also supports Hizbollah and sends it arms and money from Iran.
Hizbollah is the only independent armed militia in Lebanon, and the Lebanese
Government and Army are in no position to confront it. The latest car
bombing in the Christian area of Lebanon shows what the pro-Syrian groups,
notably Hizbollah, think of the demonstrations against Syria. This is the
typical way that the groups in Lebanon communicate with each other. As long
as they are facing internal conflict Hizbollah is not so much of a threat to
Israel. But, in order to show their capability they often use Israel as a
punching bag to remind the others what they can do. With a purported cache
of 10,000 rockets Hizbollah could do enormous damage to northern Israel if
it unleashed them. Hizbollah is also the conduit for Iranian support for
various Palestinian terrorist groups, particularly Islamic Jihad.
So the Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis is a combination of committed anti-Israel
enemies that must be faced. The temporary calming with the Palestinians is
good. But, any outbreak of violence with any other enemy can quickly set us
back to square one with the Palestinians and Abbas seems to have no means to
stop that.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Pros and cons

Here is a list of recent events in the Middle East that give confidence for
the future. These could be said to result from, or at least are consistent
with, the Bush doctrine that the democratization of the Arab States will
result in a more peaceful Middle East.
1. The Iraqi election was carried out successfully against a background of
deadly insurgency.
2. Mahmud Abbas was elected President of the PA with 65% of the vote (not
3. There have been massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon, the
largest of which had ca. 1 million people (pro-Syrian demonstrations are not
4. Pres. Assad of Syria stated that all Syrian troops and intelligence
personnel will be withdrawn from Lebanon, and the first stage of the
redeployment of most Syrian forces to the Bekaa Valley or into Syria itself
has taken place.
4. Pres. Mubarak of Egypt has decided to amend the Egyptian constitution to
allow competing candidates for Presidential elections in Egypt.
5. Ayman Nour, leader of an opposition party in Egypt, was released from
jail under international pressure.
6. The number of terrorist attacks against Israel have been significantly
reduced (even though a terrorist incident killed 5 Israelis two weeks ago).
7. The impending Israeli disengagement from Gaza is being planned, hopefully
with PA coordination.
8. The 60th commemoration of the Holocaust was held at the UN General
Assembly, and 40 international leaders including the UN Secty. Gen. Kofi
Annan are visiting Israel for the opening of the new extension to Yad
9. The Ambassadors of Jordan and Egypt have been returned to Israel.
10. Israel handed over security control of Jericho to the PA and Tulkarm and
Kalkilya are expected to be transferred soon.
But, of course there are some contrary indications.
1. At another meeting between the PA and the Islamist parties in Cairo, they
decided to continue the current temporary "calm," short of the ceasefire
expected by the PA, Egypt and Israel.
2. Hizbollah continues on its path of fighting Israel, with no diminution of
the degree of hatred against Israel as expressed in its recent pro-Syrian
rally in Beirut.
3. Syrian forces may be leaving Lebanon, but that does not mean that Syrian
influence won't still be strongly felt there.
4. The Gaza Disengagement may result in a significant rift between right and
left in Israeli society.
5. The Disengagement will not satisfy the opponents of Israel, but will stir
them to demand more concessions.
6. Hamas may do better than Fatah in the upcoming PA local elections.
While these lists can be compared and debated, there is no doubt that the
dynamic of the Middle East has changed for the better. While the talk of
peace is in the air the actual situation on the ground has not yet changed
significantly for the better.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Lebanon unleashed

I have been accused of being "pollyannaish" about Assad and the Syrian role
in Lebanon. I note that my previous article was entitled "The Syrian
shuffle," indicating that Assad is trying to avoid what he professes he is
doing, namely withdrawing his troops from Lebanon. In today's Jerusalem
Post you can take your pick, on the front page there is an article entitled
"His troops leave but Assad subtly tightens his grip on Lebanon," and on the
back page the Editor of the Post, David Horowitz, has written an article
entitled "The eclipse of Assad." Who is right, has Assad been irretrievably
damaged by the recent events or has he managed to overcome them?
There are of course contradictory indications. The demonstrations following
the assassination of Rafik Hariri that led to the removal of the pro-Syrian
Lebanese Government now seem to have been reversed by the appointment by
President Lahoud of the same PM Karame to form a new Government. As before
the deputies who voted for this Government are predominantly pro-Syrian and
so will be the Government. So it is a case of two steps forward, one step
back. But, nevertheless a previously unimaginable blow was dealt to Syrian
control in Lebanon that cannot be fully reversed.
This reversal came about because of the much larger pro-Syrian rally held
last week by the Shi'ite minority in Lebanon, led by the head of Hizbullah,
Sheikh Nasrallah. However, although the Shi'ites may be the largest single
minority in Lebanon, they do not constitute a majority of the total
population. Although accurate statistics are hard to come by, the Christian
population (consisting of eleven separate sects of which the Maronites is
the largest) is ca. 30% of the population, and among the Muslim sects (5
altogether) the Sunnis are supposed to be around 20% of the population and
the Palestinians are 12%. Given that the Druze are also around 15% that
leaves the Shi'ites at 22% of the population, nowhere near a majority! So
although they were able, with Syrian help, to bring out several hundred
thousand Shi'as, this does not mean that they can in any way themselves
control Lebanon. Also, the relationship between Hizbollah and the Syrians
has been subtly altered, since the Syrians now depend more on the Shia in
Lebanon than vice versa. At the same time the European Union has voted to
consider labeling Hizbollah as a terrorist organization.
There are also other factors. There are some moderate Shia who do not
support Hizbollah, especially those who constituted the Amal militia group
that was disbanded in 1989, they resent the fact that Hizbollah was allowed
to continue. The Christians with their French/European culture are
anti-Syrian, and so are the Sunnis. The Assad family are from the Awalekite
minority (17%) in Syria, that is a heretical Muslim group much like the
Shi'a. They have managed to keep control in Syria by taking over the armed
forces (remember Hafez Assad was Head of the Syrian Air Force before he took
power). The Sunnis in Lebanon and in Syria don't like the Awalekites, but
so far can do nothing about it. Hafez Assad killed about 20,000 Sunni
Muslims when the Muslim Brotherhood, the predecessor of Hamas, tried to
start a coup in Hama in 1982. But, his son Bashar is not considered to be
as ruthless as he was, and times have changed.
Pres. Bush himself has laid down an ultimatum to Assad to get out of Lebanon
by May, when there are supposed to be elections. In doing so he also
emphasized that he must remove his secret police. It is unlikely that this
will be accomplished, and then with US credibility on line and with wide
international support, it is likely that the UN Security Council will vote
for sanctions against Syria. It is also likely that if elections occur in
Lebanon the majority will vote for an anti-Syrian government. Before these
"ifs" can be accomplished some water has to flow under the bridge of time.
Don't expect Syria to give up its control of Lebanon without a struggle and
don't expect real democracy any time soon. But, the likelihood is that the
situation of Syria in Lebanon will gradually be eroded, with the possibility
of internal strife. It has been reported that in the past few weeks ca.
b$10 have been withdrawn from Lebanese Banks. Powerful forces have been
unleashed in Lebanon that cannot be readily restrained.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The Syrian shuffle

In his address to the Syrian Parliament the other day Pres. Bashar Assad
repeatedly stated that Syria is withdrawing from Lebanon because it wants
to, not because it is being forced to. But, this was just a face-saving
gesture. In reality Syria is being forced to withdraw from Lebanon under
threat of UN sanctions. It has lost all its allies except for Iran,
including Russia, the Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt) and
especially France, all of which have supported the removal of Syrian forces
from Lebanon.
As evidence for Syrian readiness to leave Lebanon, Assad said that they had
unilaterally reduced their troops from 40,000 to 14,000. But, this was also
done only as a result of previous external pressure. Now with the popular
uprising of tens of thousands of Lebanese in Beirut following the
assassination of former Pres. Rafik Hariri, and the strong statements of
Pres. Bush that Syria must withdraw immediately, Assad is feeling the heat
and his back is against the wall. Of course, in previous times his father,
Hafez Assad, would simply have massacred the demonstrators and that would
have been that. But, times fortunately have changed.
However, things are not necessarily so simple, as today there was a meeting
of heads of pro-Syrian organizations in Lebanon, calling for a demonstration
in Beirut tomorrow. One of the leaders of the pro-Syrian forces is Sheikh
Nasrullah, Head of Hizbullah. In fact, most Shi'ites who dominate southern
Lebanon, are pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian. But, it remains to be seen how
many will come out to demonstrate for Syria, and whether or not they can
stem the tide of popular support for Syria to go.
There may also be clashes between the two sides that could result in a civil
war again, similar to that which Lebanon had for many years, with the pro-
and anti-Syrian forces fighting it out. No doubt the Syrian secret service,
estimated at more than 10,000 in Lebanon, will be doing their best to stir
things up. However, the reconstruction of Lebanon and the suffering that
they previously experienced might have taught the Lebanese a lesson.
After the meeting today between Assad and the Lebanese President, the
redeployment of Syrian forces is to begin tomorrow with all of them
withdrawing into the Bekaa Valley, followed later by a gradual removal into
Syria. But, this plan seems to be too little too late to satisfy the
international community. As Pres. Bush said, why can't he simply give an
order to immediately withdraw into Syria, and he gave Assad a deadline of
May. Of course, there are two reasons for Assad's delay, one is to save
face by not appearing to be following America's dictates, and second Syria
has real interests in Lebanon that can't be abandoned so easily. The
Syrians have been using Lebanon as a money cow to milk whenever they like,
they have been stealing from Lebanon and lining their own pockets. That is
why the Syrian secret service will be anxious not to leave. So Assad is, as
they say, on the horns of a dilemma. Now he must withdraw, or be seen to be
withdrawing, but by doing so he loses the support of many hardliners in
Syria and Lebanon. If he is not careful this could mean the beginning of
the end to Assad family control of Syria itself.
A secondary, but nevertheless important outcome could be the downfall of
Hizbullah. Remember that all other militias in Lebanon, including those of
the Christians, the Sunni Muslims and some Shi'ite militias were disbanded
according to the Taif agreement of 1999. Hizbullah was the only one allowed
to continue to exist, in order to fight Israel. But, that need has entirely
evaporated, since Israel evacuated Lebanon, and has no forces within any
Lebanese territory. It is unlikely that the other Lebanese factions will
simply stand by and allow a single highly armed militia to exist that could
defy any sovereign Lebanese government. So the removal of Syrian forces
from Lebanon might bring about the fall of several dominoes, including a
possible rapprochement between Lebanon and Israel.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Saboteurs of peace

Jibril Zubeidi, the brother of Zacharia Zubeidi, the leader of the al Aksa
militia in Jenin, was arrested by Israeli security forces some weeks ago.
Now they have released information derived from his interrogation and that
of 12 other terrorists from the same cell. What was striking is that they
were led to a secret Kassam rocket factory in a sealed room inside a
metal-working factory in a village near Jenin. Of course, the IDF destroyed
this factory.
But, what is ominous about it is that it reveals the new strategy of Zubeidi
and his fellow terrorists on the West Bank. Seeing that their colleagues in
Gaza and southern Lebanon have been successful in launching rockets into
Israel, and given the difficulties imposed on them to get suicide bombers
into Israel due to the presence of the Security Barrier, they have decided
to launch rocket attacks on Israel from the West Bank. The IDF put the
situation into perspective by saying that the terrorists so far do not
represent a threat to Israel. However, Ben Gurion airport and densely
populated regions of Israel are within rocket range of many parts of the
West Bank. Any rocket attack there would be a major development and an
impediment to any peace process.
Pres. Abbas of the PA obtained strong international support at the recent
London Conference, that basically gave him carte blanche to do what he
wants, trusting that he really wants to democratize the PA. There are some
indications that he is on the right track.
For example, the former owner of the Palestine International Bank, Issam abu
Issa, has returned to the PA from Qatar, where he has been in hiding since
being expelled from the PA by Yasser Arafat in 1999. He is a Qatari citizen
and were it not for the intervention of the Qatari ruling family on his
behalf he would have been arrested and executed for supposed financial
crimes. Yasser Arafat actually stole his Bank and put it under his own
control. In a corrupt State the gangsters are in charge and don't bother
with Bank robberies, they simply steal the Bank. Today Issa has returned to
the PA and gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post, in which he said inter
alia "I tried to lobby by all means in favor of a democratic and free
economic environment. And that was of course contradictory to the existing
policy at that time, where dictatorship and gangsterism prevailed and was
supported unfortunately by those who thought that a corrupt PA would be in
the interest of Israel and of peace." Issa is now trying to get his
illegally seized Bank back and the m$100-500 missing from it.
Another minor but telling point, is that in describing the terrorists who
blew up the Israelis in Tel Aviv recently, Abbas used the Arabic word
meaning "saboteur." Apparently this is the term used by the Arabic
broadcasting services of Kol Israel to describe the terrorists, rather than
the actual translation of the word terrorist, that for Palestinians is used
as a word connoting sacrifice and honor. So when Abbas was the first
prominent Palestinian to use this term he was criticized by the Palestinian
media. But, he rejected the criticism and explained in a statement that
they are literally trying to sabotage his efforts to stop the violence and
bring about peace. The fact that he broke this linguistic barrier is also a
telling point.
Nevertheless, Abbas has been criticized by the Israeli and US governments
for not taking direct action against the terrorists and their
infrastructure. During this lull or supposed ceasefire, the terrorist
organizations are bolstering their ranks and preparing for future
confrontations with Israel, while Abbas is doing nothing to actually prevent
that happening. Talk is cheap.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The London Conference

The London Conference on Palestinian Reform was called by PM Blair to
enhance his tattered image among his left-wing opponents by showing that he
is committed to peace between Palestine and Israel, whatever he did in
Iraq. As he said in his opening remarks on March 1, "There's probably no
more pressing political challenge than to move this process forward because
it has a relevance on the streets of Britain, on the streets of European
countries as well as in the Middle East itself." It has become an act of
faith among the irreligious left that if the Israel-Palestine conflict is
resolved, then peace will bust out all over, the Arabs will no longer be
anti-Western and violence will cease. Such superficial sentiment does not
stand up to the least amount of scrutiny (witness how the Arabs solve
problems between themselves).
But, nevertheless the Meeting (not conference) is proceeding without Israel.
Since it was to have focused exclusively on internal Palestinian reforms in
the areas of democracy, security, and economics, there was felt to be no
need for Israel to participate. But, however, as anticipated, some of
the participants have put a strong political spin on the proceedings, so
that in effect PM Blair has not kept his word to PM Sharon to avoid this
outcome. Apparently it was too tempting for the Arab participants not to
use the occasion to score points against Israel.
Both the BBC and CNN repeatedly highlighted the fact that Israel was not
represented there, as if that implied that Israel is against progress and
peace. However, Israel did not want to be pulled into a premature "peace
conference" that it had not been involved in the planning of and was not
party to. The issues to be discussed in detail were internal PA issues,
such as reducing the number of security services (again), ensuring economic
transparency (again), stopping random killings (again). All these issues
have been discussed as nauseam before, the only difference now was the
feeling that Pres. Abbas means business.
Another reason for the conference was to once again collect money for the PA
and ensure that the money promised is actually donated. Many countries have
held back because of the known corruption and misuse of funds that occurred
during Arafat's tenure. So far there is only a hope that things will be
different. On paper, the Palestinians have received the most money in the
world by far for charity, and the extra b$1 generously promised at the
London Meeting should significantly improve their economic situation, if it
is not all stolen again.
Now the Meeting is over, its actual accomplishments don't seem so important,
and have been overtaken by events in the area, including the suicide bombing
in Tel Aviv, the overthrow of the Government in Lebanon, and the pressure on
Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. The London meeting will only be remembered
if from this point on the Palestinians begin to act responsibly in the
international arena.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Syria and Lebanon

This evening the Lebanese Government resigned in the face of mounting public
demonstrations. Tens of thousands have been demonstrating in Beirut against
Syrian occupation of Lebanon and its control of the Lebanese Government
since the assassination of Rafik Hariri last week, for which Syria has been
blamed. One of the notable features of these demonstrations is that they
have been multi-denominational, including Christians of all persuasions
(Maronite, Catholic) and Sunni Muslims (Hariri was Sunni). This is Syria's
worst nightmare, that the factions will unite against them. Notable by
their absence from the crowds are the Shia Muslims who inhabit Southern
Lebanon, and who tend to be pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian. They also tend to
be Islamist and virulently anti-Israel and supportive of Hizbollah.
What will happen next in Lebanon is anybody's guess. Note that Syria
regards Lebanon (and Israel and Jordan too for that matter) as part of its
territory, that was stolen by the West, particularly Britain during the
Mandate of Palestine (that included then Transjordan). While France gave up
its Mandate of Syria and Lebanon, and Syria was subsequently able to use the
Civil War in Lebanon as an excuse to send its forces in to restore order and
occupy Lebanon, now there is no rational basis for their presence except
pure military control. In the wake of the recent US-French UN Security
Council resolution 1551 that requires Syria to withdraw all its forces from
Lebanon, Syria has responded by reducing its forces to some 16,000 and
supposedly redeploying them to the Bekaa valley adjacent to the Syrian
border, but this has not been independently confirmed.
Meanwhile Israel has documentary evidence that Islamic Jihad operating out
of Damascus was behind the recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, that killed
five Israelis and wounded 60. That this was so indicates not only the
opposition of many Palestinian and Arab groups to reject any accommodation
with Israel, but also as an indirect challenge to Pres. Abbas of the PA.
While Islamic Jihad in Gaza has flip-flopped on claiming credit for this
bombing (first they claimed it, then they backed off), nevertheless this
attack did originate in the PA, and was actually organized and executed from
there (near Tulkarm). The fact is that the terrorist group's infrastructure
is still intact in the PA territories, apart from Israeli depredations of
it. So far Abbas has taken no action against them. Note that in order to
get into Israel, because of the Security Fence around Tulkam, the bomber had
to take a circuitous route through Jerusalem where the fence is incomplete.
Although Israel could order the IDF to attack Islamic Jihad facilities in
Lebanon and Syria, at this particularly sensitive juncture, with Lebanon on
the brink of a revolution and Syria under pressure from the West, Israel
does not want to give anyone any excuse for sympathy with Syria. So the
Israel Foreign Ministry is mounting an information campaign to convince the
Western countries of Syria's involvement in the support of terrorism and
guilt specifically for this attack in Tel Aviv. Many people in Israel would
like to see Syria punished for its actions, and many in the US would also
like to see this for Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq. But, we
may have to give up our preferences for action at this time, since we don't
want to give Syria or its Lebanese agents any excuse for not quitting
By the way, regarding Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, Syria just
handed over Saddam Hussein's half-brother, al-Takriti, to the Iraqi
Government. They claim they just found him living in Syria, but if anyone
believes that they are quite gullible, since Syria is an extreme police
state, and no one does anything there without the Syrian secret police
knowing. So we can assume they have been harboring him since the downfall
of Saddam and cooperating in his support of the insurgency in Iraq.
So things are going our way, and hopefully the full impact of the change in
Lebanon and the pressure on the Syrian Government have not yet been
realized. However, this does not punish Syria nor Islamic Jihad for the
deaths of five Israelis (two of whom were young women about to be married).
Hopefully that day will come soon.