Thursday, September 28, 2006

From today's MEPP circulation:

The situation at the moment is very complex. But then, when has it not been in this conflict? Israel’s PM has made clear again today (as so often in the recent past) that he has no wish to negotiate with a Syria that harbours Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as supplying Hezbollah. In this mornings Israeli Cabinet communiqué he also added:

‘Regarding statements about Syria and other issues, it must be recalled that the Government has a policy and it is unacceptable that ministers express personal views that do not jibe with Government policy.’

Roughly at the same time, Shimon Peres – currently vice premier – was reportedly telling Chatham House that Israel was ready and willing to negotiate with Syria, if she only offers reasonable positions as a starting point. Peres stated that at the moment Assad’s position amounted to a demand for Israel to make all possible major concessions as a prerequisite for the start of a diplomatic process.

Meanwhile, on the Palestinian front, again we are in a muddle of diplomatic activity. After Mahmoud Abbas appearance at the UN General Assembly, at which he pronounced that a Palestinian unity government would come into existence and (would try to) meet the by now established requirements for a resumption of aid, he returned to the West Bank, only to report that as a result of his speech he was ‘back to square one’ with no new government in sight. On another Fatah / Hamas issue, a report today claims that Abbas is now seeking Qatar’s help to mediate over the abducted Israeli soldier, with some confusion over whether he is in that country at the moment or not – and a possible Abbas – Meshal meeting there. Israeli PM Olmert has told a radio programme there that he wishes to meet Mahmoud Abbas in the coming days, so we might yet see a little movement, though Defense Minister Peretz told the Jerusalem Post that he may escalate operations in Gaza in light of continued Kassam attacks.

As this overview is intended for the general membership, I apologise to those members who are part of the diplomatic process or the media and will be aware of these developments. Any comments / thoughts on the current realities, expert or not, are appreciated as ever.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Palestinians 'back to square one'

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that efforts to form a government of national unity will have to go back to square one.

Mr Abbas appeared to blame the setback on the Hamas militant movement.

Hamas controls the current government but has been subjected to a Western economic blockade because it refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.

There had been hopes that the formation of a government of national unity might lead to the ending of the sanctions.

Speaking at the United Nations a few days ago, Mr Abbas had said that the proposed new Palestinian government of national unity would honour past agreements recognising Israel's right to exist.

Back to the beginning

But such a government would have to include Hamas and, soon after Mr Abbas spoke, Hamas leaders reiterated that they would have no part in any administration that recognised Israel.

Mr Abbas has now conceded that efforts to form a government will have to go back to the beginning.

He indicated that he regarded Hamas as having reneged on an agreement regarding the new administration's political agenda.

He said that after the deal was signed, there had been, as he put it, regressions.

The Israeli, American and European Union's economic sanctions on the current Hamas-controlled government have had a crushing impact.

They are squeezing the life out of what was always a very weak Palestinian economy.

Many people here hope that the formation of a coalition administration with a more moderate approach to Israel might lead to a lifting of the sanctions.

But it is going to be very difficult for Hamas and Mr Abbas's Fatah Party to bridge their differences on the key issue of whether a Palestinian government should, even implicitly, recognise Israel's right to exist.

Assad: I want peace with Israel, but failure may lead to war

Cross posted from the NCF Syria blog

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Syria - Israel negotiations?


Should Syria and Israel Negotiate? - Syria Think Tank

Camille-Alexandre Otrakji has done it again at Syrian Think Tank. Four excellent articles on the question: Should Syria and Israel start peace negotiations now?

Interestingly, all come to a similar conclusion despite getting there is different ways. Each reveals a slightly different perspective. Must reads, all of them. Missing is the perspective of the neocons, but this perspective can be found in your local paper. Also worth reading is Katherine Zoepf's article on the Qubaysiat organization in Syria, which has had a number of good articles written on it, in particular by Ibrahim Hamidi a few months ago.

Ibrahim Hamidi Dar Alhayat

After the October War of 1973, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conducted famous shuttle diplomacy between Damascus, Tel Aviv, and Cairo. This led to the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, setting buffer zones between the two warring countries, and establishing a no-peace, no-war relationship. Both parties have remarkably respected this relationship despite all the tension in the Middle East. Kissinger’s shuttle diploma......

Ammar Abdulhamid Tharwa Project

In order to answer this question in a meaningful manner, we should bear in mind that neither Syria nor Israel can actually plan such a major undertaking step without first consulting their respective allies and supporters, namely Iran and the United States. Moreover, we should not be oblivious here as the current regional context in which these talks are to be held, a namely: the ongoing investigation into the assassination for former Lebanese P......

Patrick Seale Syrian Think Tank

Recent indications would suggest that Israel – or at least some Israelis – are beginning to explore the possibility of restarting negotiations with Syria after a six-year interruption. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had appointed a senior official – Yaakov (Yaki) Dayan, formerly head of the diplomatic desk at the Ministry – as ‘project manager’ of possible future talks with Damascus. There have ......

Ghayth Armanazi Syrian Media Centre

Before the recent war in Lebanon, the idea of resuming peace talks between Syria and Israel seemed far-fetched. Nothing in the then prevailing regional geopolitical dynamics, nor in the rigidity of Washington’s approach to dealing with a demonised Syria , pointed to any appetite for revisiting the dust-encrusted dossier of the moribund Syrian-Israeli ‘peace track’. Within Israel the previous government of Ariel Sharon had cold-shouldered the c......

Saturday, September 16, 2006

How a Better Middle East Would Look?

An interesting (or alarming) view comes from June's edition of the US Armed Forces Journal. Citing Winston Churchill's comment that the way the borders of the Middle East have been drawn have caused troubles way beyond their boundaries, the writer suggests a better map for the region based on ethnic and religious lines.

Is this the kind of New Middle East that is being envisaged by the White House?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Irish Nationalists see what Israelis can't

In an article for Haaretz, James Bowen, argues that Israelis cannot shirk their responsibilities towards Palestine for ever. He says that anti-semitism is no excuse for denying rights to Palestinians made homeless in 1948 and 1967. Equating the Irish experience of settler colonialism with the Palestinian case, leads him to conclude that Israelis will "overcome their dysfunctional denial of responsibility....only when Israel conforms to International Law".

James Bowen, a professor in the National University of Ireland at Cork, is national chairperson of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Posted by Mehreen

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

UK PM Press briefing

Middle East

Asked whether he would make any analysis of his Middle East trip in the speech, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister would refer to, in the general sense, a desire to move forward. We needed to continue to push it forward. The proposal for a national unity government in Palestine was a positive development but we needed to see the detail of the terms on which it had been agreed to see whether they met the principles set down by the international community. For that we would have to wait as this sort of thing took a little time. Asked how the Prime Minister assessed the trip, the PMOS said that the outcome, as the Prime Minister had said himself, would be best judged in the coming weeks and months ahead. The answer to the question of whether we had seen some momentum in the right direction was yes. We were cautious and we did not want to get ahead of ourselves.

It was important for people to see how it worked out in practice in the coming days and weeks. Asked whether progress in the Middle East was now the Prime Minister's key challenge, the PMOS said that it was certainly a key challenge. The Prime Minister had said that explicitly yesterday. That was why the Prime Minister had undertaken the trip. It had not come out of thin air. It was something that had been discussed right at the heart of the conflict. If people looked back through the Prime Minister's Los Angeles speech there was a clear strategic analysis of why he believed progress in the Middle East was important and vital now. Therefore this was why the Prime Minister had said that he would go back and that it would remain a key priority.

Asked if the Prime Minister would refer to the incident in Damascus today, the PMOS said he did not think so. Even though the situation in Damascus was over the issues around it remained obscure.

The occupation is to blame, isn't it?

By Avi Issacharoff

GAZA - In the town of Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip there are still signs of the last Israel Defense Forces operation in the area. More "exposed" agricultural areas, the bombed bridge leading into the town and damaged homes. A visiting Israeli examined the bullet holes in the windows in astonishment. "Why did the soldiers fire at you?" he asked in shock. The owner of the house smiled in embarrassment. "It's not the Jews, it's the Kafarana family that fired on us during the war of hamulas (extended families)," he explained.

Military operations in Gaza provide many Israelis and Palestinians with the ultimate explanation for the deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip: the occupation is to blame. However, visits to Gaza and public statements by Palestinians, like Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad, who recently published an article calling on the Palestinians to own up to their mistakes, reveal a more complicated situation.

Many Palestinians dare to admit that the economic and social deterioration in the strip is not the outcome of Israeli actions alone. The disintegration of Palestinian society and its institutions has also played an important role. Gazan society is returning to an era in which the government, headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh or Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), does not solve problems; the sheiks and mukhtars are the important mediators.

While the economic situation in Gaza is bad, almost shocking, it was not born completely in the Israeli and international economic siege. As it turns out, there is money - but only for Hamas members. A prime example of this is the huge budget provided for Hamas-run schools in the strip. For Gaza residents, Hamas membership can assuage economic distress. The organization manages to assist people and pay them allowances, while Fatah members are approaching bankruptcy. This is how a partial economic revolution has taken place: Those who receive salaries and can make it through the month are Hamas supporters, who traditionally came from weaker sectors of the population. The new poor are Fatah members.

The streets of Beit Hanun are relatively clean. Municipal employees are not on strike here, as opposed to Gaza City, and garbage collection has continued as usual. There were also no strikes in Khan Yunis, Rafah and other cities. However, there is a strong stench in Gaza City, for which people blame Israel; Israel had been withholding money from the PA (and thus payment from the municipal employees.) Gaza City's mayor, Majed Abu Ramadan, is identified with Fatah, and, as a result, the city received reduced budgets relative to other Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip communities. Therefore, the municipality employees in the city hastened to strike, while sanitation employees continued to work in other cities. In midweek, the strike ended in Gaza as well, not because the salaries were paid, but because of agreements behind the scenes between the Gaza municipality and the Ministry for Local Government, which is controlled by Hamas.

A kilo of zaatar for NIS 100

Gaza City's dire economic situation is more evident among Fatah members in other areas as well. Hamas' operational force, which numbers thousands of soldiers, receives the best equipment, regular supplies of food and drink and, according to Fatah members, a sizable monthly allowance. This fact has ignited the anger of members of the other security services, who have not received wages for nearly six months.

On Tuesday they set out on a parade in the streets of Gaza. The thousands were led by a motorcycle bearing two armed men with yellow Fatah ribbons tied to their heads. The demonstrators fired into the air and sang loudly: "Go, go ya Haniyeh, a kilo of zaatar is worth a hundred shekels." This chant referred to Haniyeh's famous statement upon assuming the premiership, in which he said that "if the siege continues, we'll eat zaatar and salt."

One of the participants, an officer in the preventive security force, Arafat al-Arini, explained that "the Haniyeh government must take responsibility. The government is not providing political hope, is not conducting negotiations with anyone in the world, and is making mistakes in its treatment of the security services." Meanwhile, the cries become more hostile: "Go, go Haniyeh, the government needs real men."

Arini says that Hamas caused the international community to lose interest in the Palestinian issue. "They aren't even accepting the Arab initiative," he says. An ice cream wagon that was making its way among the demonstrators did not manage to cool things down, and when the protesters arrived at the parliament building, they vented their anger against it.

After Shalit's release

"Hamas should fear the moment when Shalit is released," says a senior officer in one of the security services. "Only then will its real problems begin. Everyone will expect a turning point, but without a change in the organization's policies, Israel will not remove the siege and the government will fall. The economic and security situation is only becoming worse, and with it, the corruption. During the era of Fatah rule, a special committee decided on appointments to government ministries. Now they appointed 11,000 civil service employees without a committee - only those close to the plate, relatives of ministers, friends and neighbors."

Among other things, Hamas ministers have appointed 67 new directors and deputy directors to the government ministries, and another 300 assistants and advisers. "They are smuggling millions via the crossings and paying their people salaries. They have appointed 20-year-olds as deputy directors. There is great anger among the residents of Gaza, not only at the occupation, but also at the government that has destroyed Gaza," said the officer.

The same officer claims that a Palestinian unity government will not serve Fatah, but will rescue Hamas. "They want a unity government because for them it's the last opportunity to remain in power. That's why Fatah must not join such a government."

Abbas is actually the one person who is enthusiastic about the idea of a national unity government and is trying to convince Hamas to agree to it. "It's not that he's interested in rescuing Hamas," explains a Palestinian commentator in Gaza. "Although Haniyeh has become somewhat weaker and his organization is guilty of many negative phenomena, Abu Mazen knows that there is no substitute at the moment for a Hamas government except for the dismantling of the PA. Even if the government resigns and there are new elections, Fatah is so divided and weak that it will lose the elections again."

Ramadan celebrations

Last Tuesday 3,000 new visitors entered Gaza, young calves imported from Australia for Ramadan. A few thousand more are making their way to the strip at present, along with dozens of tons of hay that will serve them as food. The operation is being run by the Israel Defense Forces Coordination and Liaison Administration, which is located at the entrance to the strip.

Its director, Colonel Nir Peres, must have one of the least enviable jobs in the army. He has to maneuver between conflicting interests: the needs of the Palestinian population, on the one hand, and the security demands of the IDF and the Shin Bet security services. When the commercial crossings are closed, the Palestinians and the human rights organizations complain. When the crossings are open, the security officials complain about the dangers.

"At the beginning of April, we opened the Karni crossing to exports. A few days later, a booby-trapped car that was supposed to carry out an attack at the crossing exploded on the Palestinian side. A few days ago we discovered another tunnel and only this week did we begin to renew exports. None of the human rights organizations that come to us with complaints asks why the terror organizations are doing that," he explains.

Peres, who is a naval officer, looks as though he is still not quite used to a job that requires the skills of a politician. A week ago on Shabbat an Israeli delegation from Physicians for Human Rights visited Gaza. They returned with severe complaints about the Israeli policy that prevents the sick from being treated in Israel and makes it difficult to transfer medical equipment to the strip.

"The complaints are simply untrue," he says. "In recent months there were 800 entries into Israel by the sick and those accompanying them. No medical equipment was held back. But, of course, an Israeli doctor who is used to the standards of Tel Aviv hospitals will come to the strip and say that the conditions there are terrible."

In their statement to the media, representatives of the Israeli organization who met with Palestinian Health Minister Bassam Naim did not mention the initial policy of the Hamas government not to permit the exit of sick people to Israel because of "budgetary problems." Miraculously, the Palestinian Health Ministry managed to find money to pay for the treatment of a few well-connected people in Israel. The father of one of the children whose treatment in Israel Naim initially rejected, said at the time that if Hamas were to draft 1,000 fewer soldiers for the "operational force" and use the funds for the Health Ministry, there would be no problem paying for his son's treatment in Israel.

But, as noted, the occupation is to blame.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Israel lifts Lebanon blockade

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel lifted its eight-week sea blockade of Lebanon on Friday after an interim maritime task force led by an Italian admiral deployed off the Lebanese coast, the commander of U.N. peacekeepers said.

"The force is now operational and I understand that the naval blockade is lifted," UNIFIL head Major-General Alain Pellegrini said in a statement.

"The blockade has seriously undermined the Lebanese economy and it is high time for it to end so as to allow the people to get back to their businesses."

There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials. The Jewish state had earlier said it was coordinating the handover of control of the coast to U.N. forces under Pellegrini.

Lebanon has demanded a lifting of the blockade to enable it to speed reconstruction of bridges, homes, roads and factories devastated during a 34-day war between Israel and Hizbollah.
An Italian admiral will command the interim force until a UNIFIL naval task force is deployed. UNIFIL said it had established a naval operations center to coordinate all operational details.
A UNIFIL spokesman said four Italian ships were currently supporting the Lebanese navy in monitoring Lebanon's territorial waters.

A Lebanese government source said earlier UNIFIL informed Beirut that it took over control of the coast at 12:30 p.m. (0930 GMT) and that the blockade was lifted at that time.
"French, Greek and Italian ships will monitor our waters till the Germans arrive," the source said.

Israel ended an air embargo on Lebanon on Thursday but held back at the last minute from allowing free shipping movement, saying the naval blockade would be lifted only when ships of an international force were deployed.

"An Italian admiral is assuming control of the U.N. mandate on the basis of a request by the Lebanese," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told a joint news conference with Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv.

"I think the blockade is ending, air and sea."

Livni said the lifting of the embargo was not a question of timing, but of ensuring that responsibility for patrolling the Lebanese coast could be passed to the international forces.

Israel imposed the blockade when it went to war with Hizbollah after guerrillas captured two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. It bombed Beirut airport and coastal radars and barred most shipping from Lebanese ports.

Flights to and from Beirut resumed from Thursday evening and several international and Arab airlines announced resumption of normal services.

Italian and French naval vessels were expected to begin patrolling the coast until a German-led naval contingent can take over in line with a Lebanese request to the United Nations.
Many countries have criticized the blockade, which Israel said was aimed at stopping Hizbollah from re-arming, but which Lebanon saw as collective punishment.

Italy said it would soon deploy more troops to southern Lebanon that along with the dispatch of other European soldiers would comprise an "effective ground force", opening the way for all Israeli troops to leave.

"I think in a week the multinational force would be at 5,000 people," D'Alema said. "The French and Spanish are deploying, it will be possible to have an agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli troops in the next 10 days."

Israeli media have said the pullout was likely to finish by the start of the Jewish New Year, which begins on September 22.

In another area touched upon by the U.N. resolution, Olmert said Israel would be willing to discuss the disputed Shebaa Farms if Lebanon disarms Hizbollah, Israeli media reported.

The Shebaa Farms is a small patch of land claimed by Lebanon, but occupied by Israel since it captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.