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February 12, 2007 - Vol. 8, Issue 15

COMING SOON - ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATIONS; DEAR KAREN HUGHES; JERUSALEM POWDER KEG; ISRAEL, LEBANON, & HEZBOLLAH

COMING SOON - ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATIONS: The planned summit between U.S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to be "theoretical negotiations, an attempt to discuss all of the issues on the agenda between the two parties, without reaching the implementation stage," writes Ma'ariv columnist Ben Caspit. Caspit notes that "this initiative is geared to skip over the first stages [of the Road Map] in an attempt to plot out the problems and bridge the gaps in issues of principle between the parties." Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly believes that resuming negotiations will provide moderate Palestinians a "political horizon" and will strengthen them in

comparison with Hamas.

Such an approach may be popular in Israel. According to a poll commissioned by the Geneva Initiative headquarters, 70% of the Israeli public prefers negotiations for a final status agreement with the Palestinians, over a cease-fire or a multiple-stage process. 33% believe that such a move would help Olmert politically. 64% believe that Abbas is the desired partner for negotiations.

At the same time, reports surfaced this week of growing numbers of Israeli security experts who urge the Israeli government to open a channel of communications with Hamas. Former chief of military intelligence, Major General Shlomo Gazit termed the three preconditions laid down by Israel and the Quartet "ridiculous, or an excuse not to negotiate." Gazit added that "we must negotiate on concrete problems - not on declarative issues. I am in favor of starting negotiations today, while the violence continues, and to sign an agreement which will go into effect when it stops."

Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy - who also headed Israel's National Security Council under Ariel Sharon - acknowledged that reaching out to Hamas "may not work, but aren't we strong enough to be able to try it?" Halevy reportedly proposes that Israel accept Hamas's offer of a long-term truce and try negotiations. He notes that Hamas is respected by Palestinians and generally keeps its word. "They're not very pleasant people, but they are very, very credible," Halevy said.

Why change course? "People in different government agencies are well aware of the problematic nature of the present policy and are concerned by the growing risk of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority," explained Gidi Grinstein, director of the Reut Institute. If that happens, says Grinstein, "the responsibility on the shoulders of Israel will be enormous - economically, administratively, and militarily."

A Ha'aretz editorial last Monday noted that Israel and the U.S. appear to be "playing the old game" of bolstering or weakening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in order to bring about the desired political result. "As if the transfer of $100 million from Israel, or $86 million for the U.S., or the deliveries of arms to forces loyal to Abbas will result in a strategic change in the PA. It is sufficient to hear the strong denials of Abbas regarding the news of the weapons transfers to appreciate the kind of embarrassment that this Israeli policy is causing him, and the position of lack of credibility in which it places him.

"Instead of constantly trying to decide which Israeli manipulation will work best, the government should immediately and vigorously state that the country adopts the Arab League summit initiative, and that it is willing to negotiation over its basic points with any authorized Palestinian government on issues that are related to essential services and concern the rehabilitation of civilian infrastructures. To this end there is no need for Hamas to recognize Israel, or vice versa - only to appreciate the humanitarian needs of a population that has been transformed into a hostage." (Ha'aretz, 2/5 & 2/6/07; Ma'ariv, 2/6/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/8/07; Forward, 2/9/07)

DEAR KAREN HUGHES: The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution released a study on Thursday of public opinion in six Arab countries. Of the 3,850 survey respondents, 38% rated President George W. Bush as the most disliked world leader, followed by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (11%), current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (7%), and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (3%). Asked to name the two countries that pose the biggest threat 79% named Israel, 74% cited the U.S., and 6% said Iran.

12% said that their attitude towards the US was very favorable or somewhat favorable. 21% said that their attitude was somewhat unfavorable, while 57% said that their attitude was very unfavorable. 69% said that they had "no confidence" in the U.S.

How might attitudes towards the U.S. improve? Well, 70% said that their attitudes are based on U.S. policy in the Middle East. 62% said that the U.S. could improve its image by brokering a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. 33% said America's image would improve if American troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Only 8% said that an increased effort to spread democracy in the Middle East would help.

Indeed 43% ranked the "Palestine issue" as the issue most important to them. An additional 34% said it was among their top three issues. 11% more said it was in their top five. 61% said that they are "prepared for a just and comprehensive peace with Israel if Israel is willing to return all the territories occupied in the 1967 War including East Jerusalem." 23% wanted Arab governments to "exert more efforts on this issue." 38% did not think that the Israelis would give up these territories peacefully. 29% want to continue fighting even if Israel gives up land for peace.

The survey was conducted this fall in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The margin of error is +/-1.58. (Ynet, 2/9/07; Brookings.edu, 2/8/07)

JERUSALEM POWDER KEG: On Wednesday Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert requesting that work on the new ramp to the Mughrabi Gate be stopped due to security considerations. Peretz attached an opinion written by General Amos Gilad, chief of the Defense Ministry's political-military bureau, who warned that the construction was causing considerable damage and would create foment in the Arab world. Peretz said that he only learned of the construction on Wednesday, although other officials dispute this claim.

Jerusalem police and other security officials who had been consulted preferred that the existing walkway be restored instead of constructing a new bridge. In consultations held just prior to the beginning of work, security officials reportedly said that the internal clashes in the Palestinian Authority made this an optimal time for carrying out this work.

Yet aides to Defense Minister Peretz said that "the activity on the Temple Mount was gratuitous." They added that "the fact that a decision of this sort was made without including either the defense minister or his aides is very grave unto itself. This decision was made without good judgment. There was intelligence about unrest, about how the Islamic Movement was waiting for a pretext to ignite things, and they acted despite all that. The defense minister and the security establishment have a national and moral obligation to warn when a situation of that sort is created."

Tensions are so high that this weekend a high-ranking police official warned that a rumor of people killed on the Temple Mount could start a riot within minutes in Wadi Ara, the villages in the Galilee and, later on, the Bedouin communities in the Negev. Protest demonstrations were held in Jenin, Nablus, Gaza, Hebron and Bethlehem. In cities in which there is friction with Israel, such as Hebron and Bethlehem, clashes erupted between Palestinians and the security forces. The state of alert for terror attacks has been raised across Israel.

The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the continuation of the excavations with the support of nearly all of the ministers, excluding Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Education Minister Yuli Tamir, and Minister Ghaleb Majadele, all of whom abstained. Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky announced Monday that he was postponing the construction of the ramp until additional discussions could be held about the plan. Lupoliansky's decision comes following discussions with Western Wall Rabbi Rabinowitz and Muslim clerics. Excavations will continue. (Haaretz, 2/8 & 2/11/07; Maariv, 2/11/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/9 & 2/11/07; Israel Radio, 2/12/07)

JERUSALEM POWDER KEG, PART II: On Friday, Ha'aretz's Yoel Marcus wrote that "the old saying 'it's worse than a crime; it's a blunder,' applies to the construction of the new bridge to the Mugrabi Gate on the Temple Mount. The plans drawn up by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Jerusalem Municipality were okayed by Ehud Olmert, but they were not coordinated with the Waqf and upset the king of Jordan. It didn't take long for the rumor to spread that the Jews are out to destroy Islamic holy sites. From here to an outbreak of rioting, the road is short. The government is not such a hero when it comes to battling its own ultra-Orthodox extremists. It halted work on the Trans-Israel Highway because of a few unidentified bones that turned up in the excavations. In the matter of the Temple Mount, Olmert wants to have it his way. He also thought he was the smartest guy in creation when he initiated the opening of the Western Wall tunnel and set off riots that left 16 Israelis and 69 Arabs dead. Ariel Sharon thought he was the cleverest of men when he went up to the Temple Mount, triggering the al-Aqsa intifada. The problem is that our great brains don't always know how to get out of the fixes that smart people never get into in the first place."

Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday Roni Shaked recalled that "each time the Palestinians engage in internal wars, our leaders have a special talent for uniting them against us. This was the case when the Western Wall tunnels were opened in 1996 and when Sharon ascended to the Temple Mount in 2000. This is happening now too, in the construction of the new bridge to the Mughrabi Gate.

"For the Muslim world, which has been feeling increasingly threatened by the West in recent years, the el-Aksa Mosque is not only the third most holy site after Mecca and Medina, it is a symbol of the political battle against Israel and the West. The Muslims fear a Jewish-Zionist plot to destroy the mosques and build the Third Temple in their stead.

"Yesterday, the Muslim world united in hatred for Israel, in light of the images of the Israeli bulldozer on the Temple Mount, at the foot of the golden mosque. Senior religious leaders from Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt poured venom in Israel. Arab leaders, headed by the king of Jordan, warned that the work increases tension in the region. The volcano in Jerusalem is threatening to erupt once again, and perhaps to ignite a third Intifada.

"All this commotion could have been avoided. The repairs to the path of the dirt rampart that was damaged three years ago could have been carried out in coordination with the Muslim Wakf. The Wakf would have cooperated, as it did 15 years ago, when it agreed to have a supporting wall built next to the dirt rampart. But the bulldozers started out without Israel having taken the position of the Wakf into consideration, without in-depth planning or a serious discussion. There is no debate over the fact that Israel has the full right to build anywhere in Jerusalem. It is possible to build a bridge, it is possible to renovate and restore, but this has to be done in an intelligent and dignified manner. And without shaking the powder keg." (Ha'aretz, 2/9/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/7/07)

ISRAEL, LEBANON, & HEZBOLLAH: Israel's northern border heated up on Wednesday when the demolition of explosives by Israeli sappers led to an exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese troops. When the explosives were laid, and by whom, is uncertain at this point, although Israeli commentators overwhelmingly accept the assertion that they were put down Hezbollah recently.

Ma'ariv columnist Amir Rappaport wrote Thursday that "all in all the present reality is certainly better than the situation that existed prior to the war, when Hezbollah held outposts adjacent to the border fence. But it is important to understand that contrary to the impression created in Israel, as if the Lebanese army and UNIFIL had gone south in order to deal with Hezbollah on our behalf, UNIFIL perceives itself as a neutral force while the Lebanese army soldiers understand that they were sent south to defend it from Israel and not from Hezbollah. And so, a local indent became a severe confrontation between the IDF and the Lebanese army yesterday. The IDF insisted on proving that the situation that existed before the war, when it was unable to act against arrays of explosive charges that were placed on the other side of the border fence, is not the situation today. An IDF force set out to dismantle explosive charges that were revealed in an area north of the border fence, but south of the line that was recently marked by the UN by means of blue barrels. Last night's incident could cloud relations between the IDF and the Lebanese army, which are still being formulated."

At the same time, Lebanese forces took action more than one front last week. On Thursday, Lebanese customs inspectors stopped a truck coming from the Lebanese Bekaa Valley for a routine inspection. The truck was found to hold 60 Grad rockets and another 240 Katyusha rockets of various types. Hezbollah admitted that the weapons in the truck were bound for it, and demanded that the Lebanese government return them. Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr, however, said that "at a time when the army is fighting against the Israelis and gaining a victory that ends in Israeli withdrawal and the condemnation of Israel in the UN, Hezbollah can be expected to announce that it is giving these weapons to the army, and not demand their return." (Ma'ariv, 2/8, 2/9 & 2/11/07)

REAL ESTATE BOOM OR BUBBLE: The Amana Settlement Movement has started appealing to American Jews to buy homes in the West Bank and renting them out to settlers at "affordable rates." Houses will be sold for as little as $93,000 and will be rented out at a minimum of $250 a month. Should American buyers want to sell their home, Amana will have the house vacated and prepared for sale. On February 25th settlers will be visiting Teaneck, NJ to lure Americans to buy homes in settlements including Karnei Shomron, Eli, Otniel, Kiryat Arab, and Shiloh.

"Almost all communities in Yesha [the West Bank] are full, with no possibility of accepting new young couples or families," reads an Amana letter to potential buyers. Potential investors beware: All may not be as Amana claims. Peace Now Settlement Watch leader Dror Etkes told the Jerusalem Post that home owners have a hard time getting rid of their homes in settlements and that at least two of the settlements that are being pitched have empty houses. "What I think is that they are trying to recruit money from outside, so they have more money, and better cash flow. They would like to have more available money to be used," speculated Etkes. (Jerusalem Post, 2/9/07)