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February 20, 2007 - Vol. 8, Issue 16

Veni Vidi.Vaniise; Excavatuibs Exoposed; Rocket threat, missile defense; Olmert's Foes and...Foes;

VENI VIDI.VAMOOSE: Expectations were low, results even lower. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Jerusalem Monday after mediating a modest meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The three, Rice said in a photo-op following the summit, "affirmed our commitment to a two-state solution, agreed that a Palestinian state cannot be born of violence and terror" and reaffirmed their adherence to the "road-map" peace plan. Olmert and Abbas did not join Rice for the photo-op and did not release a joint statement. They agreed, however, to meet again soon. Rice promised to return to the region. "What will be remembered from the hastily organized summit meeting" wrote Yedioth Ahronoth veteran diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer, "will be primarily the American effort to get through the meeting quickly and elegantly, and mainly to keep the two parties from gaining any access to the media." In the meeting, Olmert and Abbas reportedly had a sharp exchange. According to a report attributed to a "high-ranking Palestinian source," Olmert was upset and said to Abbas: "You deceived me by going with Hamas." In response, The Palestinian president complained: "you didn't give me anything and you didn't keep your promises. We had battles that were on the verge of a civil war, and I had no choice but to opt for the Mecca agreement." The Prime Minister's Office refused to respond to this report. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/20/07; Ma'ariv, 2/20/07; Israel Radio 2/19/07)

EXCAVATIONS EXPOSED: The Muslim world's uproar over the excavations and the planned bridge construction outside the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa mosque site has pushed Israeli decision-makers to scale back the plans and to promise full transparency of the archaeological digs. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on his visit to Turkey last week, accepted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's request to send a professional Turkish archaeological team to examine the works. Olmert expressed his confidence that such a team would report to Erdogan that the ongoing digs and the planned bridge pose no threat to Al-Aqsa. At the same time, the Israel Antiquities Authority is offering a 24/7 monitoring of the digs through a live web-cam on its website.

Also on the website is an article by Yuval Baruch, the chief archeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority's Jerusalem district, which suggests that Israeli officials kept secret the excavation of a Muslim prayer room at the site three years ago. The article, titled "The Real Story," revealed an explosive revelation: ruins of an old Muslim prayer room lie beneath the earthen ramp that runs up to Mughrabi Gate. The room was exposed in 2004 after part of the ramp collapsed into the Western Wall plaza, but its discovery was kept secret until now. The passage in the article, which was apparently edited-out on Monday following its exposure by Yedioth Ahronoth, says: "when the Mughrabi ramp collapsed a small room was exposed in which there was a niche that had a dome roof, a sort of Muslim prayer room that faced south. There are some who suggest that at issue are the ruins of a prayer room that was part of a madrasah (a school of Muslim religion) that operated near Mughrabi Gate." The ruins that were found date probably from the eleventh century, the period of Saladin, which is known as the Ayoubi period, and are significant to the Muslim world. The important find seems to have been kept under wraps lest Muslims demand that the site be declared a holy site to Islam even though it is adjacent to the Western Wall. One of the complaints that have been aired by Muslims against the excavation work at Mughrabi Gate is that the destruction of the ramp will damage Muslim sites. The find that had been reported by the Israel Antiquities Authority website is likely to support those allegations. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/19/07; www.antiquities.org.il, 2/19/07)

Rocket threat; missile defense: Six months after its war with Israel, in which it showered northern Israeli communities with some 4,000 rockets, Lebanon's Hezbollah reportedly may have managed to rehabilitate its capacity almost entirely. "Hezbollah is building up more firepower than it had before the war. Some of this ordnance has arrived, and some is still en route from Syria," a spokesman for the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee quoted Yossi Baidatz, head of the research division at the Military Intelligence Corps telling the committee on Monday. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who also attended the meeting, corrected Baidatz, saying the report does not pertain to actual military force but to the potential for acquiring military capabilities. "Power comes down to more than just counting rockets," the panel spokesman quoted Peretz as saying at the session. "Let's remember that Hezbollah's network of outposts has been demolished. It is not even at a quarter of its pre-war status." Hezbollah's rocket capability, however, has reportedly all but recovered since the end of the war. According to a current intelligence assessment that has reached Jerusalem, Yedioth Ahronoth reported, if an armed conflict erupts again, Hezbollah would be able to fire approximately 150 Katyusha rockets into Israel per day over a period of four months. Israeli officials are particularly worried about the smuggling of Iranian Zelzal rockets that have reached Lebanon by way of Syria. A high-ranking political source said that at present, Hezbollah has dozens, if not hundreds, of Zelzal rockets. According to information that reached Israel, the Syrians also recently sent Hezbollah shipments of new Russian-made Kornet anti-tank rockets.

The successful test-launch of the Arrow-2 missile on February 11 is kicking Israel's missile defense system up a notch. Within the coming weeks, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) are expected to conduct another test of the Arrow missile - this time of an improved version with a longer range, which should be able to intercept non-conventional threats at a great distance from Israeli territory. The new Arrow-2.5 and the Arrow-2, are part of a major effort that is currently underway to improve Israel's ability to deal with the threat of long range ballistic missiles. Iran and Syria have such missiles. Some of the Syrian missiles are believed to be armed with chemical warheads. Uzi Rubin, the former director of the missile defense administration in the security establishment, said that 13 out of the 15 tests the Arrow had undergone were successful, "and in each one of them there was something new. This system keeps on improving." The target that the Arrow-2 missile destroyed on February 11 simulated an Iranian Shihab-3 missile that was armed with a nuclear warhead. The coming tests of the Arrow-2.5 will examine the performance of a missile that was designed to cope with more advanced threats, which are currently being developed by the Iranian missile industry. The Arrow-2.5 will reportedly be capable of engaging with the incoming missile at so great a distance and altitude that an incoming missile's warheads - be they chemical or nuclear - would not cause any damage to Israeli territory. The Arrow is jointly developed by the IAI and the American Boeing corporation. Two days after the successful Arrow-2 test last week, a delegation headed by Yitzhak Nissan, the director general of IAI left Israel to brief Boeing officials about the test and to discuss future cooperation. In addition to the Arrow, as part of Israel's special preparations for a surface-to-surface missile strike, IAI is currently building a giant unmanned plane known as the "Eitan." This plane is capable of carrying various warning systems that will be used in addition to the IAF's newly acquired early warning and intelligence aircraft (Ha'aretz 2/19/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/13/07)

HEADS KEEP ROLLING: Two more senior Israeli officials left their positions over the weekend in scandalous circumstances. Moshe Karadi, Israel's chief of police, resigned Sunday following the publication of a harsh report by a state commission investigating a series of suspected corruption scandals in the highest ranks of Israel's police. Also on Sunday, Tax Authority director Jacky Matza, currently under house arrest, announced his resignation, two months after being arrested on suspicion of having ties to corruption within the tax system. In a letter to Minister of Finance Avraham Hirchson, Matza wrote that after realizing that his investigation would drag on for several months, at least, he decided, out of a sense of "civic responsibility," to resign now and thus make it easier for Hirchson to appoint a permanent replacement. The two latest resignations come after the recent resignation of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, under investigation for his conduct during last summer's war with Hezbollah, after the resignation of Justice Minister Haim Ramon, after being indicted and later convicted for sexual indecency, and after the temporary ousting of President Moshe Katzav, pending his indictment for rape and sexual assault. Ma'ariv's political commentator Ben Caspit lamented: "Who's next in line? Whoever comes first. The State of Israel is being sucked into a hysterical, crazed whirlpool, like a huge tornado zigzagging and destroying everything in its path. If this hurricane were to bring peace and quiet in its wake, that would be one thing. But it is very unlikely that will happen. Yes, the stables must be cleaned, but we are liable to find ourselves ultimately without horses. We can take one earthquake, two. When life is reduced to making it from one earthquake to the next, there is a danger that everything will collapse." Yedioth Ahronoth's chief columnist, Nahum Barnea, had a different take: "Within a month the State of Israel has changed both the head of its armed forces and the head of its police force. There are countries where replacement of people in those positions is a sign of a general collapse of public order. Not here, thank God. Israel is stable enough to withstand not only replacement of the police inspector general, but also the president, the finance minister, the defense minister and even the prime minister. Perhaps it is possible to request just one favor - please, don't change them all in one week. Spread it out a bit." (Ma'ariv, 2/19/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/19/07)

OLMERT'S FOES AND . FOES: Trailing badly in the polls, with 75% of Israelis in support of new elections, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took a break from his ongoing squabbling with his coalition partners and lashed out at opposition chairman, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. At a meeting of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Olmert said the documents in his hands prove that in the past, during talks he held with Syria, Netanyahu expressed willingness to give up almost the entire Golan Heights and withdraw to the 1967 border. "You know that isn't true," Netanyahu interrupted angrily. "You know that it is true. Don't try to hide it," Olmert replied, and claimed that because of the negotiations that Netanyahu held with the Syrians, "the public and the international community realized that Israel was willing to give up 99 percent of the territory." Netanyahu waited patiently until he had the floor, and then began a frontal attack on the prime minister. "You haven't learned a thing. Just a year ago, you let that little bad thing, Hamas, turn into a big bad thing, instead of cutting it off while it was still small. We told you not to let them run in the elections in Jerusalem, but you ignored that. We suggested to you to overthrow the Hamas government, but you didn't. You gave in to Hamas, and now it will pour money into the Palestinian government that will be used for terrorism." Immediately afterwards, Netanyahu left the meeting room, went out to reporters, and accused Olmert of spreading lies about his opinion regarding the Golan Heights. In the meeting, Olmert continued to attack Netanyahu in his absence, referring to the former prime minister by his nickname. "Bibi is much more authentic when he is Bibi. Bibi has stopped acting like a statesman and gone back to being good old Bibi. He established Hamas and revived it. He is the one who released Sheikh Yassin [the assassinated Hamas spiritual leader] and gave Hamas a chance to blossom because of the stupid things that were done while he was prime minister."

Increasingly irritable, Olmert has recently lost one of his best friends. Ma'ariv's veteran columnist Dan Margalit, a close friend (a "soul mate," in Margalit's words) of Olmert for the past 35 years, told Ha'aretz that Olmert has cut him off - to Margalit's chagrin - since the leading journalist wrote critically of the prime minister's handling of the past summer's war against Hezbollah. [.] "even before I wrote about that in the paper, the people in his closest circle heard me say that in my estimation [Olmert] has to go. This is not the job for him. Not everyone is cut out to be prime minister. I think, not with hatred but the opposite, with much love, that Ehud Olmert failed in the second Lebanon war," Margalit said in an interview with Ha'aretz. "It took me a little time from the moment I reached that understanding until I wrote about it," he recalled. "In that conversation in his office my suspicions were confirmed that [Olmert] cannot carry the Jewish people in this story. And then I started to write critically and he was already not talking to me." (Ma'ariv, 2/13/07; Israel Radio, 2/14/07; Ha'aretz, 2/16/07)

LITERACY AND LAUGHTER IN THE NEGEV: Nine year-old Sali Okbi, a Negev Bedouin who goes to school in Beer Sheva, won first place in a Hebrew reading comprehension contest among all elementary schools of southern Israel. Soon she is to compete at the national level in Tel Aviv. The contest is run by the Education Ministry with the aim of encouraging children to read books. Okbi, who is bilingual, said she has always preferred reading a book before going to bed. "Television and computers? No thank you. They bore me," she told an interviewer.

If Okbi is the first female Bedouin reading champion then Fatma is the first Bedouin woman standup comic. She is 43 years old, was married at 12, had Ahmed at 13, and then gave birth to sixteen more children. The entire clan lives in the village Balad Yousef, ("the end of the world and then you turn right. Anyone who makes a mistake and turns left gets to Gaza"). Fatma, whose last name is not mentioned by the Yedioth Ahronoth writer, gives private performances by appointment only. She is a drummer, a dancer and most of all masterfully uses her sharp tongue. As she jokes with her audience, she compares between expressions in Arabic and Hebrew. For example, "we say, 'the tongue is like a dog. If you tie it up it will protect you, if you let it go free it will make trouble for you.' You [Jews] have a saying that goes, 'life and death lies with the tongue.' And both of those expressions abandoned Haim Ramon [the former Israeli minister of justice who was recently convicted of sexual indecency for tongue-kissing a soldier against her will] because of what my grandmother used to say: 'anyone who lets stupidity stick to him at the age of seven is going to retire with it as well.'" (Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/14/ & 2/18/07)