Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hamas is using the Gaza cease-fire to stockpile weapons

By Avi Issacharof and Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondents

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Tuesday that Israel is concerned about the continued strengthening and arming of Hamas and is following developments closely.

During a visit to the Israel Defense Forces Gaza Division, Peretz said Hamas is taking advantage of the cease-fire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to continue stockpiling arms.

"We are definitely doing everything in order to preserve the cease-fire," said Peretz, but added that Israel has "no reason to turn [Hamas']strengthening into a real threat to Israel."

Peretz refused to rule out a military operation in the Gaza Strip. "Every solution that protects the citizens of Israel is possible," he said. "We prefer a diplomatic solution, but where that doesn't work out, we will also conduct military operations."

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who accompanied Peretz on his visit, said one of the principle Gaza threats that concerns the IDF is the digging of booby-trapped tunnels by Palestinian organizations.

A Qassam rocket hit an open area south of Ashkelon Tuesday, causing no injuries. In Nablus, the IDF continued its large-scale operation "Hot Winter," which is focusing primarily on carrying out arrests in the casbah.

Three women's bodies found in Gaza in under 12 hours
The bodies of three woman were discovered in the Gaza Strip over the course of 12 hours on Tuesday, in what appear to be unrelated murders.

The body of 31-year-old Gaza City resident Ibtisam Abi Gaynes was discovered on the Beit Lahia beach in northern Gaza on Monday night.

Several hours later, passersby found the body of 45-year-old Samira A-Dabeiki. According to her husband, he last saw her on Monday afternoon when she went out to do some shopping.

Tuesday morning, the body of 40-year-old Amani al-Husari was found in the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood. According to her son, armed gunmen who identified themselves as police burst into their home on Monday night and abducted his mother.

Meanwhile, Palestinian security forces discovered the body of Abdul Majid Abu Suheiben, who apparently was a smuggler, in a collapsed Rafah tunnel. The tunnel collapsed Monday, and two of those inside managed to survive.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Talking with Marwan Barghouthi

This interview with Marwan Barghouti dates from last year but this is the first time it has been translated into English. It appears on NCF member Ari Rath's excellent Partners for Peace website. Barghouti says:

In my estimation, the possibility of returning to the negotiating table and the so-called peace process has dwindled considerably, if not completely. This has been the case, especially since Camp David and Ehud Barak’s declaration that “there is no Palestinian partner.” Ariel Sharon adopted this statement and made it his mantra, and embarked on the liquidation of the PA, including its president Yasser Arafat.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Three killed in new Gaza clashes

Three Palestinians have been killed and nearly 20 injured in the Gaza Strip in renewed violence between supporters of the rival Hamas and Fatah factions.

Hamas militants were involved in a fierce clash with a family in the southern town of Khan Younis.

Hamas blames the family for killing one of its commanders on Friday.

It is the first serious violence since Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government three weeks ago, a BBC correspondent says.

Hamas said it was targeting those who executed their commander, and called on the Fatah movement to stay out of the fight, according to the BBC's Alan Johnston in Gaza.

Major deal

The Hamas commander was stopped in Khan Younis late on Friday. He was then ordered out and shot in the street in front of his wife and children, our correspondent says.

Alan Johnston says that this looks like an act of revenge carried out by a family who suffered the loss of a relative, killed several months ago while he was serving in a force linked to the Fatah party.

Hamas and Fatah struck a major deal three weeks ago under which they agreed to end months of violence between them and go into government together.

But there was always the danger that families on either side might continue to carry out revenge attacks that might undermine the new accord, our correspondent says.

He says that Palestinians will be very much hoping that the fresh violence in Khan Younis will be contained and brought under control before it can spread.

Factional fighting between Fatah and Hamas claimed more than 90 Palestinian lives since December.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Friday, February 23, 2007

After the 'mecca agreement'

By Helene Cooper, NY Times

BERLIN: Fractures between the United States and Europe have begun to appear over whether the new Palestinian unity government is likely to receive international economic support, even as the Middle East peace negotiators officially continue their wait-and-see approach.

After the meeting here of representatives of the so-called quartet of Middle East peace negotiators — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — the group released a statement on Wednesday that "reaffirmed" its support for a Palestinian government that would recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said repeatedly that unless the new unity government meets those conditions, the United States will continue its economic boycott of the Palestinian government. So far, that government, which includes the moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, and the militant Islamic movement Hamas, does not.

But European officials appeared more willing to hold out the possibility of finding members of a new unity government with whom to work. "There are ways that we can be flexible," one European official said.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who has said that the United States and Europe should look for ways to engage Hamas, was pointed during a news conference about not threatening to continue the boycott if the new government did not recognize Israel.

"Clearly in this statement we support the formation of a new Palestinian government," Lavrov said. "It was also underscored that further steps must be taken to support the Palestinians. One certainly shouldn't speak of a boycott in this regard."

In the U.S. Congress, Representative Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, is blocking $86 million that the Bush administration wants to strengthen Abbas's security forces. An aide to Lowey said she would lift the hold when the State Department provided guarantees that the money would be used only for nonlethal security assistance.

The United States and other Western countries cut off close to $1 billion in direct aid to the Palestinian government after Hamas won parliamentary elections last year.

The United States will have a tough balancing act as it tries to keep the quartet united in an economic boycott of the Palestinian government while trying to bolster Abbas in peace talks with Israel.

Those talks, which began Monday with a summit meeting between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, ended a few hours later with little signs of progress.

Abbas has maintained that he agreed to the pact to end the violence between Hamas and Fatah, which has left more than 100 Palestinians dead.

In Jerusalem, Olmert said Wednesday that he was willing to meet "again and again" with Abbas. But he also made clear that serious peace negotiations were unlikely to take place unless the Palestinian government was willing to recognize Israel.

"The agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas does not promise any change in the basic policy toward Israel," Olmert said at a news conference.

Hamas says it does not object to Abbas negotiating with Israel. But Abbas has limited authority, and Olmert had indicated that would limit the scope of their discussions.

Greg Myre contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Thom Shanker from Washington.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Diplomatic maneuvers over 'Mecca agreement'

By News Agencies

Hamas accused the United States on Thursday of trying to thwart European efforts to ease an economic blockade of a new Palestinian unity government.

The Quartet, comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, repeated a demand on Wednesday that any Palestinian government renounce violence, recognize Israel and respect interim peace deals.

The United States wants to continue to shun the government if it does not meet the three conditions, whereas Russia and other European governments favor a softer line.

Hamas said Thursday it was encouraged by what it called a "wait and see" approach by the Quartet of Middle East mediators towards the unity government.

"They [the Quartet] have decided to wait and see until the new government is formed and they have not rushed to reiterate the continuation of the siege and sanctions," Hamas cabinet spokesman Ghazi Hamad said. "They have left the door open for the possibility of opening a dialogue."

But Palestinian Information Minister Youssef Rizqa of Hamas said: "It [the United States] aims to undermine the European and Russian efforts in order to continue the siege imposed on our people."

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal said Thursday that the world should lift the financial embargo on the Palestinian Authority, despite the opposition of the U.S. and Israel.

Mashaal was speaking to reporters in Cairo about the implications of the
agreement signed in Mecca this month.

"This [Mecca] deal should lead to the lifting of the blockade," Meshal told reporters after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. "There is no other option."

Asked if he thought the United States would agree to lift the blockade,
Meshal said: "That is not important, because there is an international will that is being formed despite the American position.

Israel: Quartet holding firm to its three demands
The Foreign Ministry on Thursday said that a Quartet statement issued Wednesday was a sign that the group of international Middle East peace negotiators are holding firm on their three conditions.

Israel pointed to statements by the Quartet after a meeting in Berlin as a sign that the group would hold the new government to the three conditions. "They're not obstacles to peace, they are prerequisites for a successful peace process," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

The unity government deal between the ruling Hamas movement and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction has widened divisions within the Quartet.

Citing the divisions, Hamas' Hamad said: "I believe there is a possibility to change the Quartet's position in a more positive manner to deal with the government."

Abbas political adviser Ahmed Abdel-Rahman said the Quartet "will open the door" to restoring ties with the Palestinian government once it fully understands the unity government deal.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas has said he hopes to announce a new government within three weeks.

Hamad said progress was being made and key decisions would be taken next week.

The unity agreement contained a vague promise to "respect" previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements but did not directly commit the new government to renouncing violence or recognizing Israel.

"In the unity government, we have adopted a political agenda that leaves a large amount of room for political movement that could be developed. The political agenda can be used by the international community to make a serious political process," Hamad said, though he gave no details.

MEPP Circulation response

Following this morning's circulation, I am grateful for this response from one of our members. It reprimands me for my (clearly labelled as personal) brief comment on the Mecca agreement and for not explicitly mentioning the occupation. It also makes it clear that the Jews are not wanted in Palestine, tolerated at best. My response is in the comments section.


Hello Davis

You seem to have left out an analysis of hamas in the perspective of the mecca agreement, different shifts, new strategies.

And you also missed the point that regardless of the fact that the mecca agreement was signed there is an internal palestinian political debate is still developing. The whole idea of a national unity government aims at ending the seige over PA without compromising the Palestinian democratic process of elections. Regardless of the fact that i personaly stand nowadays on the margins of secular opposition.

This government was elected through a democratic process and the only way for this government to leave office is through democratic process.

My personal opinion doesnt really count in here since i do believe personaly that they did fail a long time ago in fulfilling their responsibilities.

But viewing the mecca agreement only from an Israeli perspective is not an objective way of examining what's been achived so far.

There are key issues that need to be remembered even when you are dealing with diplomatic efforts. And above it all lies the fact that we are still living under occupation, and requesting one side to fullfill their part of the agreement is only valid when you do request the other side to fulfill their part of the agreement.

Something that most seem to forget, that there is in fact still an occupation and second that Israel violated most of articles of agreements it signed with the PLO.

This is of course from a Palestinian perspective. From a political perspective it is different.

Second thing that keeps on getting on the surface all of the time "recognizing Israel right to exist as a jewish state on the Land of Palestine" you will be fooling yourself and any politician no matter where he is would be fooling themselves if any Palestinian would recognize that sentence as it stated above, you wont find one Palestinian out of the 10 million Palestinians in Palestine or in the diaspora who would say yes to that. Israel would be really lucky if as a political statement Palestinians recognized it as a state.

It is so full with nonesense to see that sentence repeated over and over again. The Palestinian official stand was that Israel was recognized as a state that had border.

Recognizing its right in Palestine transforms all Palestinians into zionists and refutes the core essence of our national identity.

So the West and Israel can consider themselves as achieved the achivement of their life if they reached a point of agreement with the Palestinians on recognizing Israel as a state that has borders. And that is what the PLO recognized. Saying that Israel has a right in Palestine would mean that we Palestinians are not Palestinians and we do not have a right in Palestine.

So for god sake stop using Israeli terminology and use common sense when dealing with the conflict, and also recognize the facts that Palestine was occupied and still occupied and show some respect to those who are sitting with you and trying to reach an agreement with you on how to end a conflict. Israel will never hear that sentence from any Palestinian, and it should acknowledge the fact that it would be really lucky to reach an agreement with Palestinians that recognize Israel as a state that got borders.

It is really nonsense to keep raising this issue as if it is what should happen, the world agenda should be different than Israel's agenda.

Olmert Comments

This rather long post is well worth reading. It features Ehud Olmert discussing a wide range of subjects regarding the current situation.

Meeting of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the Foreign Press in Israel
February 21, 2007

The trilateral meeting which took place Monday here was a very serous meeting, and I think it was very candid. I said what I had in my heart, the President of the Palestinian Authority shared with me what he has in his heart and we heard also, of course, the opinion of the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. We appreciate very much the American efforts to keep the momentum of contacts between us and the Palestinians. I think this is very important for all, and Secretary of State Condi Rice is playing a very positive role in creating the necessary environment, which is very helpful to both sides.

I think it's well known and everyone understands that we were very unhappy with the reconciliation agreement that did not explicitly recognize the Quartet principles. And I shared my view with President Abu-Mazen, and I also shared it with President Mubarak, but in a different telephone call, and it was clear that Israel will not be able to maintain any kind of formal or practical contact with a government that will not accept explicitly the principles of the Quartet. That was said by us, it was said by the Americans, it was side by the Quartet members on the 2nd of February, and immediately following the announcement of the agreement it was said again by all the Quartet members and I believe that it will be repeated today at the conclusion of the meeting of the Quartet members in Europe.

However, at the same time, I made it clear that I will not cut my contacts with Abu-Mazen. I will continue to maintain the bilateral track, I will meet with Abu-Mazen, my staff will meet with his staff on a regular basis, hoping to create the necessary environment that will be helpful for the relations between us and them. We want to contribute to the quality of life of the Palestinian people living in Gaza and in the West Bank. We believe that however mistaken their leadership come sometimes be, people don’t have to suffer from the mistakes of their leaders, and inasmuch as we can contribute to the upgrading of the quality of life, under the present circumstances, we'll make these efforts, and if necessary, in cooperation with Abu-Mazen.

Also we expect Abu-Mazen to make exceptional efforts to stop the terrorist attempts and the suicide attacks against Israelis. What may have happened yesterday is just a reminder to all of us of how dangerous and serious terror can be and how easily it can break up every pattern of cooperation that we are trying to build.

So I believe that this bilateral track will continue. I believe that the Secretary of State will continue to play this positive role in inspiring these contacts between us and the Palestinians, and I want to believe, and I hope, that if indeed a new government of the Palestinians will be established, this government will be explicitly, publicly and officially committed to the principles that were adopted by the international community, to the Roadmap, and to the Quartet principles.

Today is the last day that was designated by the international community and by the UN Security Council Resolution 1737 for the adoption of the parameters of cooperation by Iran with IAEA, with regard to their attempts to acquire nuclear capacity. It appears that up until now the Iranians did not respond in a manner that all of us wanted and therefore the international community will have to think of additional measures in order to influence the Iranians to change their basic position.

My personal view is that the sanctions that were already applied and other measures taken by the international community, including financial measures, are effective. They influence and they make an important contribution to what may eventually appear as a new perception of opportunities and realities for the Iranians. It's not enough. A lot more has to be done. But I think that the Iranians are not as close to the technological threshold as they claim to be and unfortunately, they are not as far as we would love them to be. So there is a lot that still can be done and ought to be done, and the sooner it will be done, the better it will be.

If there will be a concerted effort by the international community, both diplomatic, economic and political effort by the international community, I think that there are serious chances that it will have an impact that may change the Iranian attitude. And so I think that this is the main area of focus that should engage us. I personally believe that this can be a productive way and I urge all the international community, particularly in light of the refusal of the Iranians officially to extend their cooperation with the IAEA to stop the efforts for enrichment, that additional resolutions - effective resolutions - will be adopted and applied in this area of economy, financial measures, diplomacy.

And finally, I want to take this opportunity to also report to you of what I think was the record, historic record year for the Israeli economy. I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that this last year we had, in spite of the fighting through July and August, we had a very remarkable growth of our economy of over 5 percent, inflation rate in Israel last year was -0.7, which is quite unusual for the economy to grow so rapidly and at the same time to have such low inflation. We had last year a record export, first time that our balance of payment was positive and we sold overseas more than we bought, and the surplus was more than 6 billion dollars. We also had - and we still have - a record in our stock exchange, which I think is an expression of the confidence of investors, both in Israel and outside of Israel, in the Israeli economy.

Another indicator of confidence in the economy was the highest ever foreign investments in the history of the State of Israel. Last year we had $23.2 billion of foreign investment, of which more than $12.5 billion were in tangible assets, in Israeli properties and industries. The other part was financial investments. And of course, the interest rate of Israel is one full point below the American prime rate, which is certainly something quite unusual, which I think, again, reflects the strengths of the Israeli economy and the confidence of the international community in the economy of the State of Israel.

So we were not surprised that people like Warren Buffet thought that Israel is a target for their investments. The first time that Warren Buffet ever invested outside of the United States of America, he chose to invest $4 billion in one of the leading Israeli industries, the Iscar Industries, and he never even visited the State of Israel. When he finally came to see what he bought, and he was so gracious to come and see me, he told me: "I have never seen any such place in the world. I am going now to go everywhere to speak so highly of the enormous and unbelievable achievements of your economy and your industries" - and I think that this is a very positive indication. Coming in the same year that Intel decided to invest $5 billion in new facilities, manufacturing facilities and research facilities in the State of Israel, I think it is a very strong signal of the successes of our economy last year, and our anticipation is that this year, the year 2007, will also be a year of growth in our economy and continued foreign investments in Israel.

So we are looking forward with great hope for the coming year and of course we will make every possible effort that every other front of our lives will be as successful as this.

Thank you very much.

Questions & Answers

Q: Prime Minister, what would Israel be willing to give up in territorial terms in exchange for a lasting peace with Syria?

PM Olmert: I think we first have to start negotiations and then we will find out precisely how much and what kind of territories we want to give up. I think it's a little bit too early. It is true that President Assad talked about starting a peace process with Israel, and I think I said several times - and this is our position - that we would be very happy to make a serious, genuine, credible and trustworthy peace agreement with the Syrians. But for the Syrians to want to make peace is not only just to say that they want to talk with Israel in order to make peace. They have to stop their daily involvement in encouraging terror, in smuggling arms to Lebanon, in assisting the terror in Iraq and in assisting the brutal actions sponsored by the Iranians in our part of the world. Just to say that you want peace and at the same time to sabotage the legitimate government of Lebanon and to continue the assistance to Hizballah to smuggle arms and to provoke all kinds of terrorist actions, is not a genuine signal that can convince Israel that they are really ready for a peace agreement. If there will be a positive change, they will find Israel ready, and when we will sit to the table of negotiations, I am sure that they will find out exactly what are the kind of compromises that we are ready to make.

Q: Two questions. First of all, President Ahmadinijad in Iran has reportedly repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel. What red line do the Iranians have to cross before you would carry out a military strike against Iran? And secondly, when the Israeli public voted you into office a year and a half ago, it was on your promise to withdraw from large parts of the Occupied Territories. Why are you still building in the West Bank?

PM Olmert: I think I've outlined what I think should be the strategy to deal with the Iranian thereat. There is a genuine threat by Iran. The fact that a leader of a nation of almost 80 million people, which is a member state of the United Nations, can stand up publicly and openly and threaten the very existence of another nation, which is a member state of the United Nations, this in itself is totally intolerable. The fact that this leader is doing it and at the same time is trying to build up nuclear capacity for his country and delivery systems that could use this capacity in order to destroy another nation, is totally unacceptable.

I think it is incumbent upon the international community not only to take practical measures to stop this threat, but also to take practical measures that will indicate the extent of the disapproval of this language, of these attitudes and of these approaches, as spelled out by President Ahmadinijad of Iran. No country in the world, which is a member of the United Nations, can hesitate or contemplate its position about it. Every nation has to take a very strong stand against anyone who threatens the annihilation of another nation. And that's what we expect the international community to do. I believe that the coordinated effort, the diplomatic and the economic and financial measures, can cause the result that we are looking for. And therefore I'm not defining any other thresholds or timetables. I believe that the goal that we have set for ourselves can be achieved in this way, and naturally this is my priority.

It is true that I said that I want to reach a new agreement, preferably that will allow the Palestinians to have their state alongside the State of Israel. This is my vision. This is the vision of the United States. This is the vision of the international community, and I share this vision entirely. I am in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state that will live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel, which has the same right to live in peace and security.

As you know, unfortunately, some of the circumstances that developed over the last year did not make it any easier. Just in the Palestinian front - we pulled out entirely from Gaza, we disengaged, no one can claim that we hold one inch of territory which is claimed by the Palestinians in the south part of the country. And yet there was not one single day since the disengagement from Gaza in which the Palestinians did not shoot rockets on innocent Israelis living in the south part of the country. Now we have agreed on a cease-fire with the Palestinians in Gaza in November. Since then, again, there was not one single day they didn’t violate this agreement. And we didn’t respond up until now.

So I think that there is no basis whatsoever to come to the Israeli side and to argue: why haven't you yet not accomplished everything that you wanted to do after less than one year, with all these violations that were committed by the Palestinian side - and I haven’t yet even started to talk about the brutal abduction of the Israeli soldier Corporal Shalit and the numerous attempts of suicide attacks, the last one was yesterday, by the Palestinians against the State of Israel. And on top of it, of course, the divisions amongst the Palestinians, the fact that the Palestinians keep fighting against each other. They have appointed a government which is boycotted by all the international community because they are not prepared to make pace with Israel and are not prepared to recognize the State of Israel. And as I already said at the beginning of this talk, unfortunately, the agreement signed between the Fatah and the Hamas does not promise any change in the basic position of the Palestinian government with regard to the basic principles of the Quartet, which are the guidelines for any future agreement.

So these are the main obstacles for the fulfillment of the vision of a two-state solution, and unfortunately it takes more time as a result of this. But the strategy has remained the same and I haven’t changed my vision and I haven’t changed my commitments, and I'm going to do everything in my power to continue to build up bridges between me and Abu-Mazen that will allow both of us to move forward on this direction that I have set forth for my country when I ran for the election.

There is not any violation of the basic Israeli commitment that there will not be any building outside of the existing settlement limits as they were. So there is natural growth and everything that was done was done within the framework of the existing settlements as a result of natural growth. There is not any government building, there is no policy of building, there are no government investments in the territories, certainly not in the last year.

Q: How long will you restrain your responses to the terrorist attempts and the shooting of Kassam rockets against Israelis? The last two Kassam rockets just landed now in the south part of Israel.

PM Olmert: We are not going to restrain ourselves forever, and I made it clear to Abu-Mazen when I met with him and I think that the Palestinians know very well. However, I'm not going to give you now any specific timetable or dates of when we are going to respond, but it is clear that the patience of Israel is being tested only too often and I think that it is a terrible mistake by the factions in Gaza that are stretching and challenging the Israeli patience for such a long time. At the end, we will respond and we will reach out for those who are responsible for the threats and for the shooting against innocent Israelis.

Q: You've said that you conveyed your concerns about the Mecca agreement to Abu-Mazen. What's the point of keeping up the appearance, the process, if you don’t expect any substance to come out of a joint government with Hamas? And how many more trips will Condoleezza Rice have to make here? Aren’t you just spinning your wheels?

PM Olmert: I'll never lose my desire to talk with every Palestinian that I will find a genuine potential partner for peace with the State of Israel. How many do I have to want not to meet with Abu-Mazen? Unfortunately, there are not too many, and I personally think that we have to realize that the Palestinians are divided. I will not speak with Hamas, I will not speak with Mashal, I will not speak with Haniyeh, I will not speak with a government which does not accept the very right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state as it is. But if the Palestinian President, who was directly elected by the people, shares these basic commitments and repeats it publicly and formally, do I have to also say to him: I will not talk with you? I will not try in every way to find ways that together we can work towards peace? I think it would be a mistake.

So I don’t ignore the complexities, and of course the reluctance of the majority of the Palestinian members of the national council now, who are members of Hamas, to recognize Israel and to negotiate with Israel, and therefore we will not coordinate any efforts with a government which is not obliged to these basic principles. But Abu-Mazen is different and he is not afraid of spelling out his difference, in spite of the agreement, and I think that I have to maintain that link between us and the Palestinians in order to be able to continue this dialogue, and hope that one day, perhaps, the promise of this dialogue will be stronger than the fears and the threats and the hatred and the viciousness of Hamas and its supporters.

Q: Obviously everybody knows here or maybe some know, that you were actually the mayor of Jerusalem for many years. The question, sir, Israeli Antiquities Authority said a couple of days ago that there is actually a room under the Mugrabi Gate there and that they have hid this evidence from the public. Now the Turkish team is going to come to the region soon. Why, sir, you are hiding the evidence in this delicate, sensitive issue? Second question, sir. Israeli people actually voted you to do the Realignment Plan, and this was the campaign of Kadima. Are you still committed to this in a sense that there is no final status negotiations with the Palestinians? Are you still committed to realignment?

PM Olmert: First of all, I want it to be clear. Israel is not working at all on the Temple Mount. There are not any kind of works by the Antiquities Authority of Israel on the Temple Mount, and the fact that so many are using the Temple Mount to describe what we do is false, is untrue, is part of an attempt made by the most radical anti-Israeli Islamic group in Israel to stir the emotions and to provoke violence between us and Arabs. I repeat again: the walkway is entirely outside of the Temple Mount. That's number one.

Now, everything involved - everything involved - all the information was shared in advance by the Antiquities Authority with all the interested parties, including the Waqf and others inside and outside the State of Israel. There was nothing new that was not revealed in advance by the Antiquities Authority. Now I can only say one thing, that I'm very proud that we are such a democracy that even the most extreme, fundamentalist, radical groups of the Islamic movement within the State of Israel can express their positions and their provocations in our democracy. I just suggest that we will not be carried away too much by their false statements and their provocations.

Finally, when I met with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan, and he certainly showed some concern because what he knew was based on what he heard on some of the reports, which were not accurate, to put it mildly. I suggested to him that his ambassador will come to visit the site, as did so many other ambassadors that were invited by us, and he suggested that maybe with his ambassador he will send a special representative, one or two of his own. So I said: why not? Everything is in the open, everything is exposed, actually there are television cameras that broadcast live everything that happens there and if you want to send more than one person you can send, but of course, there is no inspection committee, there will not be any inspection committee, there is no need for any inspection committee, but we always welcome everyone that wants to come and look around and see everything, and I believe that after such a visit will take place by the Turks or by others, they will report to the Prime Minister of Turkey, and he will do precisely what he said he wants to do, which is to say that everything is alright.

You also asked me about the realignment plan. What I said before the elections, and I kept saying all along the way, is that we have the same vision, as America and many others, which is a two-state solution. The realignment is a process. The vision is a two-state solution. Now, the most important part, of course, is the substance, or what is the vision. What is the final permanent situation that we envision for the Palestinians and ourselves? And I am absolutely loyal to the same position that I expressed before the election, that there should be a two-state solution and that the Palestinians will have a contiguous territory in the West Bank and that they will be able to live their own secured, independent lives in their own state. And this has not changed. How to come about it, how to accomplish it, how to carry out this plan depends on circumstances. I hope that the circumstances will allow us to reach an agreement with a Palestinian government that will recognize the Quartet principles and will accept the right of Israel to exist as an independent State. And in that case, this will be the best possible way in which I will be able to carry out my commitments.

Q: (inaudible)

PM Olmert: We knew exactly in July that there is no government that we can talk with. Now, we want to talk with our enemies, but the pre-requisite for such talks ought to be that they will agree to talk to us. And I'm sure that you heard what the real leader of Hamas said, Khaled Mashal, that he will never talk to Israel, will never make peace with Israel, and will never recognize a two-state solution, so I think that this question of when will you talk to your enemies, should not be put to us. We are ready to talk with our enemies, but there must be a basis for such talks, and the basis which was accepted by all the international community is the Quartet principles. We accept the Quartet principles. Everyone that will share with us this acceptance will be a partner of negotiations.

Q: There's been a lot of talk about international agreements and whether to accept them and who accepts them and who does not accept them. As far as I remember, the international agreement with the Palestinians was done between the Israeli government and the PLO. Could you explain to us why do you insist now on the recognition by a government that we apparently all understand will not recognize Israel for the time being. Why do you not, as the Palestinians suggest, go into further negotiations with the head of the PLO, Mr. Abu-Mazen, who you're meeting already and you say to us that you want to meet? Are you going to engage with him in negotiations? And I just want to add an extra question because I think both the Palestinian side, and if I'm not wrong also the Israeli side, the public is dead tired of politicians who seemingly don’t do what the people want, make peace. I know it seems and maybe sounds a bit simple, but that's the basics. If you go into the Palestinian areas, they are sick and tired of Fatah and they are sick and tired of the Hamas, and I won't tell you who they are sick and tired of in Israel.

PM Olmert: I am sure that you know what the basis that you have to speak for the Palestinians and for the Israelis at the same time is, for the public. I'm not certain that there is one voice in our country. We are a democracy, there are many voices, and I am afraid that also there are quite a few voices amongst the Palestinians.

Now, what you ask me to do is to speak with the body which does not represent the majority only because the majority is against talking with me. But a body which does not represent the majority today amongst the Palestinians will not be able to actually carry out any commitment that will make any such talks valuable and meaningful. Let's not bypass the issue. The fact is that indeed the majority amongst the Palestinians voted for people who don’t want to make peace with Israel, and without a change amongst the Palestinians it will be very difficult to accomplish this. What you suggest is that we will be talking as if the 13 years or 14 years that passed since the Oslo Agreement did not exist and that we will go back into 1993. But we live in 2007 and there is a certain reality in 2007 and the only way to deal with this reality is to look into its eyes openly and seriously and to deal with it. What you suggest or some may suggest is that we will ignore all of this. So it's good when you want to fool yourself, but we don’t have this privilege. We have to take care of the problems every day and when a party says not only that we don’t want to make peace with you, but we will continue our efforts to commit suicide attacks and to shoot rockets on your cities, I am not certain that ignoring this can be of any help to the creation of a real and sustainable peace process between us and the Palestinians.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, you mentioned Abu-Mazen more than six times, that you are ready to negotiate with him and you want to meet more with him, but in the last meeting that you held with Abu-Mazen here in this hall, you accused him that he deceived you in this Mecca agreement. This on the one hand. On the other hand, Abu-Mazen existed before the Palestinian elections, before the winning of Hamas, and in that time, he was the President, and Israel refused to negotiate with Abu-Mazen around the disengagement from Gaza and now you're going to choose your counterpart with whom you want to negotiate with the Palestinian side. How do you want the Palestinians to respect the result of the negotiations if you want to negotiate only with 50%, if you neglect 50% of the Palestinians, which mean the Hamas people? Why didn’t you negotiate with the Palestinian leadership from the Hamas and from the Fatah together?

PM Olmert: I never accused Abu-Mazen of deceiving me. And I don’t remember that you were in this very intimate meeting that I had with Secretary Rice and with Abu-Mazen. There was no one else there. There was only an interpreter and I'm certain that this interpreter didn’t tell you this because it never took place. I never accused Abu-Mazen of deceiving me. I accused him of making an agreement which, unfortunately, is not productive and is not constructive and is not helpful in creating the necessary environment for an agreement and the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian government. That I said, and I regret very much that Abu-Mazen was not more consistent on this issue. But at the same time, as I said before, I know of no other person that has any kind of authority amongst the Palestinians who is a better candidate for a dialogue with me and therefore I want to continue to meet with Abu-Mazen. I never said that this will be easy, nor did I say that it will be simple. It will be difficult and it will be complex. It will require the utmost patience by me and by him from his respective point of view, which I can understand even if I disagree with, and we will have to work together and meet and meet again and again and again.

Why don’t you accept the fact that Khaled Mashal says openly, publicly and formally in every platform in the world, that he doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel and he doesn’t want to make peace with Israel? That's what he says. It's regrettable. It's sad. The fact that the leader of more than 50% of the Palestinian electorate openly says that he will do everything to destroy the State of Israel is very sad. But why don’t you accept that this is the reality and why do you come to the Israeli side and blame the Israelis for not wanting to sit with someone who is aiming a gun at your head and says: if you come close, I'll kill you?

Q: I'm very interested in your opinion about Israeli Arabs. First of all, would you tell me what kind of significance do you see of the appointment of Mr. Majadleh as a first Muslim Arab minister? And second, what kind of role would you expect Israeli Arabs to play in the context of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? Thank you.

PM Olmert: The fact is that Raleb Majadleh is the first Israeli Arab who was appointed to be a member of the cabinet. So this in itself is an historic turning point which no one can ignore or disregard. I think it's very symbolic, it's very important. It's one more step in a long and painful process that will have to take place between the Israeli citizens who are Arabs, both Muslims and Christians but mostly Muslims, who are 90% of the Israeli Arabs, and the other citizens of the State of Israel, mostly Jews.

The Israeli Arabs, I am sure, many of them, the majority of them, are torn between their natural emotional identification with other Arabs and Muslims in the neighboring countries and between their commitments to the State of Israel, of which they are a part as equal citizens in our country. And this is a source for a very painful emotional conflict which characterizes their lives. Now, I think that what we need to do is to find the pattern that will allow them to resolve this conflict without violating their commitment to the State of which they are citizens and at the same time not to entirely dissociate themselves of their emotional connections to the people that they identify with, and this is something that we have to invest a lot of energy in and a lot of effort in, and we are doing it. It's not simple.

The fact that we have reached a point that in spite of the complexity of this conflict which characterizes the Israeli Arabs, there is an Israeli Arab member of the cabinet, is a very significant step forward. It's not a solution, it's not the only thing which has to be done in the build up of a better understanding and tolerance between us and the Arabs living in Israel, but I think that this is a step forward. The fact that we have 10 members, Arab members in the Knesset who can, almost on a continuous basis, on a daily basis, speak out their heart and mind, which happens to be completely, wholeheartedly against the consensus of the vast majority of Israelis, I think is a testament to the strength of the Israeli democracy, of which we are so proud.

I hope that the relations that will be built and will be improved all the time between the Israeli Arabs and the Israeli Jews will help create the appropriate environment that will encourage the upgrading of our dialogue with the Palestinians.

Q: I would like to ask you about the hint you gave last week concerning the release of Gilad Shalit, which could maybe change your attitude towards the Palestinian unity government. Would you please clarify on that, and I would like also to ask more in general, which place on the Israeli priority list does the release of kidnapped soldiers still posses today?

PM Olmert: I don’t remember any particular hint that I gave last week about Gilad Shalit. Now, certainly, Abu-Mazen said all the time that the first requirement, the pre-condition for the creation of a national unity government, will be the release of Gilad Shalit. So if indeed such a government is about to be formed and if Abu-Mazen is a part of this effort, then I hope that the first condition that he set for such a government would be fulfilled, which is the release of Gilad Shalit. But I never said that the release of Gilad Shalit can come in exchange or instead of the acceptance of the Quartet principles. There is no way that we can make a trade-off here between the principles of the Quartet and the release of Gilad Shalit. Gilad Shalit has to be released, unconditionally, immediately. As, by the way, the two abducted soldiers in Lebanon ought to be released immediately, because this was the first demand of the 1701 Resolution of the United Nations Security Council. Now, the release of Gilad Shalit does not mean that we then are going to ignore all the other basic principles, which are the necessary foundation for any future negotiations between us and the Palestinians.

Q: The other day in parliament before a committee, army intelligence officer, Mr. Baidatz, testified that he thought Hizbullah was stronger today than it was before the war, and your Defense Minister, Mr. Peretz, said: no, no, no, that's not really true. Their potential is to be stronger, and that was an unusual debate. I'm curious to ask you, as the head of the government, whether Hizbullah is stronger now than it was before the war, and if that is true, is that a failure of Israel's campaign this summer?

PM Olmert: Since the answer is no, I don’t think I have to go into the second part. I think that Hizbullah is weaker, much weaker, than they were. It is true that they are trying to smuggle arms into Lebanon. It is true that they are making efforts in order to rearm themselves to the level that they had before the war, but it is also true that the south of Lebanon now is filled with 30,000 or 25,000 soldiers of the army of Lebanon and of the international force, which make the life of Hizbullah almost intolerable in that part of the country, and the fact is that since August 14th, there was not one case that a Hizbullah soldier surfaced in uniform and with guns in the south of Lebanon, and when it happened, by the way, then they were killed by the Israeli army when they were present there. And when they try to surface now, they are disarmed and arrested by the international force and the Lebanese force.

So I think the fact that all along the Israeli border there are not any more bunkers of the Hizbullah, that they don’t have the same freedom of movement that they had, that there is an international force in the south of Lebanon together with the Lebanese force, has changed dramatically the basic situation in the south of Lebanon and has definitely weakened the options of Hizbullah in comparison to what it was. Now, I can only say to you that the newly appointed Chief of Staff, General Ashkenazi, today said the same thing, that according to his assessment, the assessment that was made by one of the officers of the intelligence, or what was attributed to him because I never heard him so I have to be very careful, what was attributed to him, I think was incorrect.

The Hizbullah is still a major obstacle to an important change in Lebanon. They are the allies and partners of Iran and of Syria. They are making every possible effort in order to destabilize Lebanon and to continue to service the Iranians' ambitions in this part of the world. And therefore, we have to have a very close look at what they are doing and to make sure that they will not be able to rebuild the same kind of fortresses which were in the south of Lebanon under their command prior to the 12th of July. I don’t think that the situation today is what it was. I think it is much better. I'm not certain that they have any appetite to fight with Israel again and I think that there is still a lot to do so that the threat of Hizbullah will be removed entirely. It has not been removed entirely, but it has changed in a very significant way, and I think that therefore the result of the war in Lebanon, or the fighting in Lebanon, in this respect, was very important, but we still have a way to go.

Q: A question about Syria again. You've argued, and you argued again today, that the problem with talking with Syria now despite their rhetoric is that they actively support terrorist groups, Hizbullah radical groups in Damascus. The question is: isn’t that the point of the negotiations? In other words, wouldn’t it be wise to check their intentions and through that, to get them to stop their activities? Isn’t that the logical way to proceed in order to get them to stop the activities you say are blocking negotiations? Aren’t negotiations the key to stopping this activity?

PM Olmert: This is a very dangerous distinction that you have drawn, which must be clarified. The purpose of negotiations is to make peace, if they take place, not to find out that the other side that you are negotiating with is not interested in the main thing which is the driving force for you, which is peace. So as I said, we are interested in peace, not in the "industry of peace". We are interested in peace, not in the process of peace. We are interested in peace with Syria, not in helping Syria pretend that it is now a peace-loving country and therefore it has to be released of all the efforts made by the international community to establish an international tribunal to inquire the assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon and of the violent Syrian involvement with Hizbullah in Lebanon.

In other words, if the Syrians are really interested in genuine peace with the State of Israel, they can't at the same time be actively involved in making the opposite against the State of Israel, and in order to find out what they are doing on a daily basis, I don’t have to negotiate with them. I can see and you can see and everyone can see, they are assisting terror in Iraq, they are assisting the Hamas in their terrorist attempts against the State of Israel, they are assisting the Islamic Jihad. The attempt yesterday, which, almost by an extraordinary chain of circumstances, was prevented, was coordinated by the Islamic Jihad whose headquarters is in Damascus. So what the Syrians are doing we know. If they want to make peace, at some point they have to stop it. Then we will still have a long way to go in order to accept the terms of peace. But how can you try to make, sit and negotiate with someone who at the same time is preparing your assassination?

Thank you very much.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Prelude to Progress

Rafi Dajani of ATFP sends this item by Danny Levi.

This presumably is the same Danni Levi who is the son of Lord Levy in the UK - presumably not to be confused with the Danny levi that the Egyptians are accusing of spying

In the American Prospect, New America Foundation senior fellow Daniel Levy analyzes the Mecca Palestinian power-sharing agreement and outlines a recommended response to the deal:

PRELUDE TO PROGRESS By Daniel LevyAmerican Prospect February 15, 2007

Monday, February 19, 2007

Mecca Deal an Opportunity

This item from Rafi Dajani is a Gidi Greenstein article. Gidi was a peace process negotiator - one of those who advocated verticle sovereignty for Temple Mount.

A Yedioth (Israel) opinion by Israel's Reut Institute director and founder Gidi Greenstein identifies the opportunity presented by the Palestinian unity government deal contingent on Israel changing its current policy:

MECCA DEAL AN OPPORTUNITY By Gidi GreensteinYedioth/Ynet News, Opinion (Israel)February 16, 2007


Friday, February 16, 2007

The Man Behind the Mecca Agreement

The American Prospect
By Jo-Ann Mort

How the recent Palestinian-Israeli peace talks were brokered from an Israeli jail.

The Palestinian unity agreement negotiated last week in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, comes with some big "ifs": whether it will last more than a few news cycles, whether it puts a halt to the low-grade civil war between Hamas and Fatah, whether the international community -- and Israel -- recognize this new government, and whether they will restore its funds and international recognition. But there are a few important certainties in this process that shouldn't be missed by Israel or the United States.

For starters, consider who attended and who did not attend the meetings. And consider that the meeting was in Mecca -- not Tehran or Damascus. One of the many unintended consequences of Bush’s sloppy Middle East policy has been Iran's surge as a regional power, including their arming and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, insurgents in Iraq, and reportedly, insurgents in Gaza. The Iranian challenge has made the Saudis nervous, so they have made a more active effort to be moderators. That's one reason for the Saudi peace initiative that has been knocking around the region for the last year.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hamas in Power

Below please find the link to the first Crown Center Working Paper:

"With Hamas in Power: Impact of Palestinian Domestic Developments on Options for the Peace Process" by Dr. Khalil Shikaki. Shikaki is a Senior Fellow at the Crown Center and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. He has conducted over 100 polls among Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza since 1993.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Muted response to Mecca agreement

Israel and the United States have reacted with caution to an agreement by Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas to form a national unity government.

Israel said any new government must reject terror, recognise Israel and honour past accords, but did not make clear if it was satisfied by the deal.

The US said it would wait for the final document before making its assessment.

It is hoped that the deal brokered in Mecca will end weeks of factional unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There were jubilant scenes in the Gaza Strip, which suffered the worst of the recent violence, as people took to the streets to cheer the signing of the deal.

People in cars waved the flags of both Hamas and Fatah, while some set off fireworks and celebratory gunfire.

Ismail Haniya of Hamas remains PM
Key interior, finance and foreign ministries to be run by independents
Reports say Hamas to take nine cabinet posts, Fatah six and one each to four other parties
No explicit recognition of Israel

Palestinians hope that as well as bringing a halt to the fighting, the deal will bring an end to a year-long international embargo against the Hamas government, but the BBC's Jon Leyne in Gaza says that is by no means certain.

Hamas has rejected pressure from donor countries to recognise Israel and under this new deal that position has not been forced to change.

The fact that it is not included in the new agreement, named the "Mecca Declaration", explains the muted response from the US and Israel, our correspondent says.

No Israeli thaw

Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the conditions for an end to the freeze had not changed.

Palestinian optimism as factions strike unity deal

"Israel expects a new Palestinian government to respect and accept all three of the international community principles - recognition of Israel, acceptance of all former agreements and renunciation of all terror and violence," she told the Associated Press news agency.

The US state department thanked King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for brokering the deal, but stopped short of welcoming it.

A spokesman told the BBC that Washington remained committed to President George W Bush's vision of two democratic states - Israel and Palestine - living side by side, and that the Palestinian people deserved a government that could pursue that goal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and exiled Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal signed the accord after talks in the Saudi city of Mecca.

They have agreed a share-out of government posts, with independents taking the key jobs of finance, foreign affairs and the interior.

PM's post

AFP news agency, citing a copy of the agreement, said Hamas would fill nine posts, six would go to Fatah and one each to four other parties in parliament.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya will retain his position.

Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Khaled Meshaal
The deal follows months of faltering talks between the two sides
As the two leaders signed the accord at a ceremony in Mecca, Mr Meshaal called for violence to stop immediately, describing the factional fighting and unrest in the Palestinian territories as "dark days".

"It is our turn to make this agreement work and to make this agreement stick, to build our Palestinian house on strong foundations," he said.

He said the international community "must respect our accord, recognise our Palestinian reality and deal with it seriously".

Mr Abbas urged the new government to "respect" previous accords signed between the Palestinians and Israel.

Hamas and Fatah have been locked in a bitter power struggle since Hamas defeated Fatah in elections in January 2006.

Months of violence between Fatah and Hamas supporters left scores dead and Palestinian civilians frightened to venture on to the streets.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Rosner's FAQ on the state of affairs in the Middle East

By Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz US Correspondent

Coming back from several briefings and presentations, mostly in the hospitable Jewish community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I went through my notes and noticed that in most of these meeting people tend to ask similar questions, and usually want the bottom line. They know that I do not represent anyone but myself, and that there are many different and even contradictory opinions out there, but want to get an opinion of the pressing questions of the day. For them, and for others who might be interested in this one humbled opinion, I've compiled this list of 13 Frequently Asked Questions, and my one-line answers.

Will the Olmert government survive? Who knows. The big test will be the Winograd Committee report. If Olmert survives this, he can probably stay in power for quite a while, unless one of the criminal investigations against him yields an undisputable indictment.

Is there a chance for a breakthrough in the talks with the Palestinians? No. Abbas is too weak, Olmert is too weak, Bush is too weak, and those opposing peace are too strong.

What's going to happen in the Palestinian Authority
The conflict has not yet been solved, and even if there's an agreement, it's just a matter of time until the next round of violence.

Will Israel leave the West Bank? Only when there's someone to hand the keys to, who can provide relative security to Israelis (peace is important, but less so).

Isn't it true that polls show most Israelis and Palestinians want peace, and would accept an agreement based on the Clinton parameters? Maybe so, but it doesn't matter. People use the polls when elections don't provide for the desired outcome, but at the end, only elections and decisions matter, not desires put in general terms.

Why is it that Israel is still settling people in the West Bank? Inertia is the answer. Israelis - most of them - have realized by now that the occupied territory will not stay in their hands forever. Asking about the settlements a year and a half after the pullout from Gaza is asking a question of yesterday. Israel proved that it can evacuate settlers, and will do so again if and when necessary.

What is Syria's game? What do they want? In short, they want Lebanon. If one is willing to trade Lebanon for other issues (Iraq, Israel, terror etc), one might get something from Assad. If not, it's a waste of time.

But shouldn't Israel negotiate anyway? It's a tough decision. On the one hand, Israel needs to show goodwill whenever there is an Arab leader wanting to talk. On the other hand, Israel's most important ally is saying that such talks would be harmful to its strategy. Can Israel ignore such a claim when its leaders presume that this will not lead to peace anyway?

What about the democratization of the Middle East? Democratization is dead, unilateralism is dead. Now it's the "moderates" against the "extremists."

Will the Saudi plan work for Israel? No, but it can serve as a basis for negotiations.

What's going on in Lebanon after the war? It's a mess. Hezbollah is still alive and kicking and the forces fighting it can't make it go away. The world is trying to bolster the Lebanese prime minister, but will find it very hard as long as Hezbollah is the strongest military power in Lebanon and as long as it's receiving assistance from Iran and Syria.

Why didn't Israel win the Lebanon war? Overly ambitious goals poorly executed.

Will the U.S./Israel attack Iran? My only advice: Don't believe anyone who pretends to know the answer to this one.

ANALYSIS: Mecca summit won't result in compromise in Palestinian Authority

By Danny Rubinstein, Haaretz Correspondent

Despite optimistic forecasts of Fatah and Hamas reaching a compromise in Mecca, there is no doubt that the Palestinian national movement is at one of its lowest points in history. This stems from the fact that the Palestinians, who claim to be a coherent national entity, are admitting they are incapable of managing their own affairs, and are compelled to seek outside intervention.

When Fatah and the PLO were founded over 40 years ago, their main slogan was "independent decision making." This meant that the Palestinians would make all decisions affecting themselves independently, based on their own interests, regardless of the interests of other states. The slogan was aimed mainly at the neighboring Arab states, each of which claimed to look out for Palestinian interests, but in reality, looked out for its own. This was true of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and other states that had founded and supported their own Palestinian organizations.

Recently, however, as the internal Palestinian crisis reached the brink of civil war, external Arab intervention in their affairs has increased. The involvement by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and now Saudi Arabia shows that the Palestinians have lost their "independent decision making." They are so weak that they have effectively transferred decision making on their internal affairs to external parties. If, until recently, the Palestinians were constantly attacking Arab governments for their weakness and accusing them of treason, today, they are begging them for help.

No time limit was set on the summit that began in Mecca last night. The participants include the most senior representatives of both camps, as well as two independents: Ziad Abu Amar and Mohammed Rashid (Yasser Arafat's former adviser), both of which have tried to mediate between the sides for weeks.

The likely compromise is fairly clear: Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has almost no room to maneuver. He must find a formula acceptable to the international community in order to end the boycott of the PA. Therefore, Hamas will have to concede something, and indeed, the organization's spokesmen have sounded more moderate in recent days. Once the government's composition is finalized, Abbas can begin diplomatic negotiations and even reach a final-states accord with Israel. But any agreement will require approval by the Palestinian parliament - in other words, by Hamas. Abbas is trying to circumvent this problem with a clause requiring any agreement to be submitted to a referendum.

But the hardest problem of all, which will remain unsolved, is that the PA will have trouble functioning even under a compromise agreement. No agreement will bridge all of the ideological gaps between the parties, and will only slightly assuage the violent power struggles. In other words, even the best Fatah-Hamas agreement will not turn Palestinian society into a Western democracy overnight. A traditional social structure, clan loyalties and political factionalism all create a need for an authoritarian leader, like those of the PA's Arab neighbors. Without a leader like Arafat, society collapses into the rule of violent gangs.

Olmert meets British Foreign Secretary for talks on peace process

By Haaretz Staff

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett in Jerusalem on Wednesday, to discuss restarting the Middle East peace process, as well as a range of bilateral affairs.

Beckett arrived in Israel on Monday evening to gauge the prospects for reviving peace talks, saying she was optimistic despite persistent Palestinian factional warfare.

"I am very much focused on what the practical steps are that can be taken to help move forward and whether there is more that we, the U.K. and European Union could be doing," Beckett said, on her first visit to Israel since replacing Jack Straw in May 2006.

"It's always a difficult time... but the underlying reality that it is to the benefit of all that there should be peace is recognized - however unwillingly - by all the major players."

Beckett met Tuesday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and other senior officials.

She is also set to hold talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas during her visit. She will be pushing hard for the revival of the internationally brokered road map, but will not break from the international policy of boycotting Hamas, which controls the Palestinian parliament.

The international community imposed sanctions on the Palestinian government in the wake of the Hamas parliamentary victory in January 2006, due to the militant group's refusal to renounce violence, recognize Israel or abide by previous interim peace deals.

"To govern one has to shoulder responsibilities and while they are not prepared to shoulder the responsibilities that come with government, the international community will take the view that they cannot deal directly with Hamas," Beckett said.

Beckett was also scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

British Embassy funded study of separation barrier

The British Embassy in Israel is helping to fund research on the enclaves created by the separation barrier around Palestinian villages in the West Bank. The study is being carried out by the non-governmental organization Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights. Officials from Bimkom say that the embassy contributed about 10,000 pounds sterling for the research and the report on the study, but did not interfere in its content.

A source in Israel's Foreign Ministry yesterday criticized the action. "It is interference by Britain in an internal Israeli matter. How would they react in London if our embassy was to fund research on a British organization that is trying to promote an agenda that is critical of [the government]? This is not acceptable in international relations."

The British Embassy issued the following response: "We recognize Israel's need and right to defend itself, but we believe the route of the separation fence should follow the Green Line. [Our] funding of the research was intended to examine the implications of the current route of the fence on the Palestinian population."

Bimkom's study, which was completed a few months ago, describes the difficulties that the fence causes for Palestinians in the enclaves on either side of the barrier. The authors of the report conclude that in addition to the security aims of the fence, it is also intended to aid the Jewish settlements and permit them to expand at the expense of the quality of life of the Palestinian residents.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett is currently on her first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In Israel she will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the chairman of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu. In Ramallah, Beckett will meet with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

In an announcement issued before her trip to "Israel and the Occupied Territories," Beckett said, "I want to see for myself the prospects for moving forward the political process."

Palestinians set for Mecca talks

Palestinian leaders whose factions have engaged in deadly battles are preparing for talks in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, seen as a last chance to avoid civil war.

Hopes are high the meeting between PM Ismail Haniya and President Mahmoud Abbas may lead to a unity government and revitalise peace moves with Israel.

Mr Haniya's Hamas and Mr Abbas's Fatah factions have been locked in a bitter power struggle over the last year.

About 60 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip in the last two weeks.

There may be obstacles but we confirm that we are going with true intentions to reach a Palestinian-Palestinian agreement
Ismail Haniya
However, a shaky ceasefire has been holding since Saturday, after the latest round of violence flared last week.

And the signals emerging from both camps ahead of Tuesday's talks have been distinctly positive, says the BBC's Alan Johnston in Gaza.

There is talk of progress having been made in the run-up to the meeting, with both sides saying they are hopeful a deal will bring them together in unity government.

Saudi motives

Replacing the current Hamas-led government with a more moderate coalition might enable the Palestinians to re-engage more fully with the West, says our correspondent.

Hamas has so far refused to recognise Israel or renounce violence - both preconditions to end a crippling Western aid boycott of the Hamas government.

"There may be obstacles but we confirm that we are going with true intentions to reach a Palestinian-Palestinian agreement that would end tensions and reinforce national unity," said Mr Haniya.

Earlier Hamas-Fatah meetings - brokered by other Arab countries, Egypt, Syria and Qatar - have been preceded by equally optimistic words, but have led to nothing.

But there is a feeling that this time could be different, our correspondent says.

There is huge domestic and international pressure on the two parties for a breakthrough, and the talks are being held in the auspicious surroundings of Islam's most holy city.

The mediating will be done by Saudi Arabia, which has significant political and financial clout.

Saudi Arabia also has its own motives for seeking a solution to the crisis in Gaza, says the BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy.

Saudi leaders are deeply uneasy about the role of Iran in three of the region's main trouble spots - Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, he says.

Saudi Arabia may have ambitions of filling a leadership vacuum in the Arab world, he says - though whether they are capable of doing so remains to be seen.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2007/02/06 13:06:48 GMT

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Israel - Syria negotiations revealed

My secret talks with Syria, by Israeli envoy

By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem
Last Updated: 1:20am GMT 02/02/2007

  • Audio: Tim Butcher on Israel's talks with Syria
  • A retired Israeli diplomat went public yesterday about secret talks between Israel and one of its most implacable enemies, Syria, describing how negotiators met in a luxury Swiss hotel and dodged the media for three years.

    Providing a rare insight into the tortuous "back-channel" diplomacy in the region, Alon Liel, a former senior civil servant in the Israeli foreign ministry, described shuttling to and from Switzerland for covert meetings with Ibrahim Suleiman, a dual-national American-Syrian, closely linked to Damascus.

    They discussed a plan to end 60 years of hostility, with Israel offering to give back the Golan Heights, occupied in the 1967 war, in exchange for Syria ending its backing of Hamas and Hizbollah.

    The talks survived crises in Israel when prime minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and in Syria when the regime of Bashar al-Assad was almost brought down by turmoil in neighbouring Lebanon.

    But in the end the talks failed last summer because Washington put pressure on its close ally, Israel, not to have dealings with Syria, a country linked by President George W Bush to his so-called "axis of evil".

    >The collapse of the talks a few months ago led Mr Liel to break silence, hoping publicity might resuscitate contacts so Syria can be persuaded to end its alignment with Islamic radical groups such as Hamas. "My feeling is that Syria is now ready to switch orientation," Mr Liel said.

    "For Syria to switch orientation is much more important for the western world than seeking peace to end the Israeli-Syrian conflict.

    "If we can pull Syria out of the camp of Islamic fundamentalists and break its association with the Hizbollah, Hamas and rebel insurgents in Iraq, then that is of great value to us all."

    During "hundreds of hours of conversations" Mr Liel said the discussion centred on the Golan Heights, the massif overlooking Damascus taken from Syria in 1967.

    The fact that Israeli soldiers can today peer down into the Syrian capital has long been a thorn in the side of relations between the two countries but Damascus's support of groups such as Hamas meant attempts to negotiate a return of the Golan have always failed.

    Mr Liel found conditions had changed this time, with Mr Suleiman indicating a different attitude in Mr Assad's regime.

    The pair hatched a plot whereby Israel would verbally relinquish sovereignty of the Golan Heights but not physically hand over control for 15 years, in which time Syria would have to prove it no longer backed anti-Israeli groups.

    Perhaps as interesting as the details of what was negotiated was Mr Liel's account of how the talks were organised.

    He admitted to being surprised that in this era of media leaks and hi-tech surveillance, the parties were able to maintain secrecy for three years.

    He said the professionalism and skill of Swiss officials, acting as intermediaries, was largely responsible for the talks remaining hidden. With their assistance most of the meetings were held at the luxurious Bellevue Palace Hotel in Bern although when the World Economic Forum was held nearby they were moved to another city to avoid the media.

    Mr Liel explained the subtle way he remained "deniable" for the government. As a former diplomat he was not officially on the government's payroll and while he filed full reports on each of the meetings to his government he was never fully authorised to represent Israel. This allowed the government of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, to dismiss the talks as purely private and without the blessing of his administration.

    Similarly, Mr Suleiman claimed to be representing Mr Assad, although the president, aware that his domestic audience would look unfavourably at any concessions to Israel, has publicly denied he knew of the bilateral talks.

  • NCF Sec General Reports from Gaza

    As of 12 noon today Friday the situation was,

    Fatah is consolidating its forces around the Islamic University and The PA complex in mid town known as As Sorayah. Fighting continues throughout Gaza. Presidential Guard forces around Al Deira hotel are under r.p.g. attack.

    Hamas leaders are "underground". Islamic Jihad / PFLP are trying to negotiate a truce. A meeting is supposed to be ongoing at the Egyptian consulate in Gaza.

    Hamas have killed General Commander Abdul Kader As Saleem the intelligence chief.

    Hamas have destroyed Preventative Security HQ

    Hamas have destroyed the Fatah Training Ground in Tel al Hawar (fifty injured in that encounter - all injuries sustained by Fatah)

    Hamas have utterly destroyed four Fatah security centres in North gaza.

    At 12 noon 17 killed and 175 injured - mostly Fatah (22 of the injured are critically injured)

    From William Morris, NCF Secreatry General, in Al Deira, Gaza - 3 pm local time