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April 11, 2007 - Vol. 8, Issue 22


SPINNING ABOUT A SUMMIT: Israelis are trying to make sense of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert 's comment that "if the Saudi king initiates a meeting of the moderate states' leaders and invites both me and the Palestinian Authority president, I would gladly come there and speak our mind." The statement was made during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last Sunday.

Knesset Member Yossi Beilin (Meretz) suggested that there was no substance behind Olmert's comments, saying: "After the prime minister decided to refuse the Syrian president's offer of negotiations and after he decided to boycott the Palestinian government, including the non-Hamas ministers, it is hard to know which international summit Olmert speaks of. Instead of hiding behind empty formulations, Olmert should have taken the bull by its horns and opened negotiations with our neighbors, but in his condition, the chances of that happening are near zero."

Knesset Member Yoel Hasson (Kadima) said that "the prime minister's invitation to a conference with moderate Arab states is a positive step that should be welcomed." Ambassador Uri Savir , Israel's chief peace negotiator in the 1990s, also thought that Olmert's call was positive, but added that "what needs to accompany it is a statement of substance that says that the Arab initiative is not accepted in every detail but could certainly be the basis for a meeting of this sort. I hope that the matter is accompanied by secret diplomacy in which it is made clear. what Israel's positions would be at such a meeting."

Ha'aretz 's chief political columnist Akiva Eldar commended Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein and bureau chief Tim McGirk for assessing Olmert's comments to be "a creaky effort to come up with a headline." Eldar adds that "this is not Olmert's first `creaky effort to come up with a headline' on the backs of the Saudis, particularly on the back of the ruler's national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan . Rumors of his secret meetings with senior Israelis (that never took place) did little to contribute to the health of the Saudi prince, who is, in any case, underwhelmed by the revival of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal . Following previous Israeli spin regarding an `amendment to the Arab peace initiative,' al-Faisal quickly extricated himself from the Israeli prime minister's bear hug. The `meeting of moderates' spin demonstrates that Olmert has not recovered from the custom of `sending a big hug' to those who welcome it and also to those who don't. The Saudis have made it clear that they do not expect Israel initially to sign every clause of the Arab League document. However, they do believe that a meeting with Israel represents a step toward normalcy that is a significant element of the Arab initiative."

Noting reports that the Saudis "will not even consider a meeting with Olmert before Israel accepts the initiative," Eldar notes that the U.S. and the EU "chose to show Olmert that they also know a thing or two about hugging. The U.S. State Department spokesman and [European Union foreign policy chief] Solana `embraced' Olmert's response to the Arab League decision in Riyadh by defining it as `a positive response that opens a path to resolution of the conflict.'"

What does the Israeli public think? According to a poll conducted March 26-27, 46% of Jewish Israelis think that the Arab League peace initiative could serve as a basis for comprehensive negotiations. An equal percentage say that it should be rejected out of hand. The number of Jewish Israelis who supported embracing the Arab League initiative is larger among those who had heard of the initiative before the poll. Among Arab Israelis, 92% say that the initiative should be accepted as the basis for negotiations. However, 72% of Israelis - from across the political spectrum - think that the Olmert government does not enjoy sufficient public backing to enter into negotiations over a comprehensive settlement. (Ynet, 4/1 & 4/2/07; Ha'aretz, 4/5/07; Tami Steinmetz Center, 4/4/07)

HEBRON'S `HOUSE OF DISPUTE': On Tuesday Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered IDF Major General Yosef Mishlav , coordinator of operations in the West Bank, to evacuate the Jewish settlers who took over a house in Hebron on March 20th . While the timetable for implementing the order remains unclear, Peretz reportedly wants the structure evacuated within 30 days of the settlers' takeover, since a delay could add legal obstacles to the eviction.

The settlers claim to have purchased the property, while a local Palestinian claims to own it. Peretz's decision does not reflect a ruling on who the legal owner is. Rather, security officials explained to Israel Radio that Peretz made a decision in principle to evacuate it, "just as he would not allow an Israeli citizen to purchase a home in [the Palestinian cities of] Nablus or Qalkilya." Peretz's order follows the official opinion of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz , who ruled that the structure was inhabited unlawfully since it lacked the permission of the defense minister.

Before the order was issued, National Union-National Religious Party Knesset Member Uri Ariel vowed to prevent the evacuation. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Sa'ar had characterized earlier reports that Peretz intended to evict the squatters as an "attempt to harass the Jewish settlement in Hebron" and "an indecent political and arbitrary attempt." Sa'ar predicted that "Peretz's attempt to damage the Jewish settlement in Hebron.will fail."

Public pressure to evict the settlers is also building. Peace Now activists visited the defense minister's home on Sunday to call for immediate action. They delivered a letter noting the illegality of the setters' action and warning that "every moment that passes without their eviction sends a message that violence and law breaking are means to achieve political goals, and allows the intruders to strengthen a permanent residence in the compound. We, the Israeli public, are those who pay the price of the dangerous acts of the settlers in Hebron, and we came to say: no more!" Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit also criticized the state's "foot-dragging" in evacuating outposts, saying it was "severely harming the rule of law in Israel, thus harming us internationally."

Writing in Ynet before Peretz issued the order, Yehuda Litani wrote that Israeli governments "fear the settlers and allow them to run wild. This is also what is currently going on at the `Disputed House'. The settlers call the building, perhaps cynically, `The House of Peace.' In line with prevailing laws in the territories, only the defense minister has the right to approve the purchase - while he has not yet approved it, he hasn't taken any measures against the settlers, who broke into the building in a military-style operation. Amir Peretz is scared to upset the settlers, as did his predecessors from Moshe Dayan to Shaul Mofaz . security forces are announcing that the settlers will not be removed until examination of the ownership documents. There's time in Hebron; the wheels of justice turn very slowly, if at all." Hebron, a frequent flashpoint for tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, is home to about 500 Jewish settlers living in heavily-guarded enclaves among some 160,000 Palestinians. (Ynet, 4/5, 4/6 & 4/8/07; Israel Radio, 4/6 & 4/11/07; Peace Now Letter, 4/8/07, Ha'aretz, 4/11/07)

HEBRON'S `HOUSE OF DISPUTE,' PART II: Ha'aretz 's editorial on Sunday explained that the takeover of the property in Hebron is not just about a house: "it's an entire neighborhood. Into this enormous, 3,500-square-meter edifice purchased by the Jews of Hebron in the past few weeks for $700,000, no less than 30 families and 14 individuals - more than at any other West Bank outpost - moved in with great pomp and circumstance. The huge building dominates the Kiryat Arba-Hebron road. Its inhabitation was a showy demonstration intended to kick off the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the city's occupation. Hebron's Jews, although numbering only a few hundred in a city of over 100,000 Palestinians, are well-practiced in setting the agenda of the occupation. It is difficult to forget that [Kiryat Arba resident] Baruch Goldstein , who killed dozens of worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs [in 1994], launched the wave of suicide attacks in Israel.

"The minister of defense has already announced his intention to evacuate the dozens of new settlers from the structure they bought, but at this stage it is a decision with no date set for action, despite the estimate by the deputy defense minister that the building will be evacuated within two weeks. The more time elapses the more entrenched the settlers will become and the harder it will be to remove them. As [Defense Minister] Amir Peretz has not managed to convince the prime minister to support the evacuation of other outposts, it is doubtful he can do so here. No one is better at exploiting official hesitation than the settlers. Experience has taught the settlers that Israeli cabinets have less staying power than the residents of illegal settlements. If they can only hang on to the end of Peretz's term, perhaps a defense minister who is more sympathetic to their cause will replace him, one who will sign off on the necessary permits as easily as his predecessors did and dispatch soldiers to protect the new settlement.

"Amir Peretz, who for years has advocated the evacuation of the settlements, must prove that his words and promises are still valid and take at least this small step after failing to evacuate other outposts. All the public opinion polls have shown for years that there is broad public support for reducing the settlement enterprise, which is considered the main obstacle to peace agreements. How much more so when it comes to a settlement of extremist settlers in the heart of Hebron." (Ha'aretz, 4/8/07)

LINES IN THE SAND: Israel's defense establishment might amend the route of the security barrier to drop the segments of the barrier that would extend furthest into the West Bank to surround the settlements of Ariel, Immanuel, and Kedumin. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has recently approved the addition of two "bulges" to the route of the barrier in this area so as to include these settlements, construction has not been completed and a 6-kilometer stretch running along the two proposed "bulges" remains open, making it hard for security forces to seal the area.

Hagai Alon , a senior aide to Defense Minister Amir Peretz , reportedly contacted Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli [who is associated with the Council on Peace and Security] and requested that Arieli propose an alternative route in that area. Arieli's plan would create a North-South barrier closer to the Green Line, sealing the gap between the settlements of Ofarim and Elkana. Arieli also proposes to form special security areas around Ariel, around Immanuel and Karnei Shomron, and near Beit Aryeh and Ofarim. Arieli wrote that his plan would face less international criticism since it would infringe less on the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state and would be easier to defend in the case of legal challenges before Israel's High Court of Justice. Arieli's proposal is also expected to be significantly cheaper - the cost of the "bulges" in the fence is estimated at NIS 2 billion. (Ha'aretz, 4/4/07)

RIGHT OF RETURN: A poll commissioned by One House found that 80% of the Jewish public support passing legislation that would compensate settlers who wish to return to Israel. 57% want it done immediately and another 23% support such legislation after the government decides to disengage from the West Bank. In addition, 57% say the government should not wait for an agreement with the Palestinians and should begin calling on interested settlers to move back to Israel. This number was particularly high among voters of Kadima (64%), Labor (77%), and Meretz (89%). Two-thirds of the supporters of evacuation believe it should be part of a political agreement. One House was founded by Knesset Members Avshalom "Abu" Vilan (Meretz) and Colette Avital (Labor) to start drafting plans and fund-raising to encourage settlers to return to Israel. (Ha'aretz, 3/29/07)

CLEANING THE STABLES: Following his conviction on indecent assault charges, former justice minister Haim Ramon will soon begin 120 hours of community service at a horse farm treatment center, as his sentence requires. Apparently looking ahead, Ramon met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday to examine the possibility of Ramon's return to the cabinet. Olmert reportedly implored Ramon to return to political life and the cabinet, but did not propose any position to him. "At the meeting it was decided that in a few weeks, immediately after Ramon completes his community service, another meeting would take place, at which a decision would be made if and how Ramon would take part in public life," read a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Bureau.

Political officials have speculated that should the finance portfolio be vacated following Finance Minister Avraham Herschson 's resignation over allegations of financial crimes, Olmert would keep the portfolio until Ramon returns. Interior Minister Roni Baron is also considered a possible candidate for the finance ministry. Defense Minister Amir Peretz also reportedly covets the post.

In the horse race for Labor Party leadership, former prime minister Ehud Barak announced the support of a number of prominent Israelis, including two military leaders - Major (res.) Yuval Tamir and Colonel (res.) Haim Gaash - who were considered to be close to rival candidate Knesset Member Ami Ayalon . (Yedioth Ahronoth, 4/5 & 4/10/07; Ha'aretz, 3/29 & 4/10/07; Ma'ariv, 4/5/07)