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April 16, 2007 - Vol. 8, Issue 23

ISRAEL-SYRIA NEGOTIATIONS; HEBRON TAKEOVER; SMUGGLING SETTLEMENTS; MANAGING THE PALESTINIAN HUMANITARIAN CRISIS;

ISRAEL-SYRIA NEGOTIATIONS: President Bill Clinton said that peace between Israel and Syria could be achieved within 35 minutes, noting that the two states were on the verge of reaching a peace agreement in 1998. He made the comments in an interview with the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat published this week.

Clinton's comments come on the heels of an unprecedented visit to Israel by Ibrahim "Abe" Suleiman, the American-Syrian businessman who represented Syria in informal talks with former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel. Suleiman traveled to Jerusalem to testify before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. This was the first time a Syrian has addressed the Knesset.

Suleiman and Liel briefed the committee on the understandings they reached for a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Their understandings include a proposal to turn part of the Golan Heights into a "peace park" under Syrian sovereignty, but which Israelis could visit freely, without visas. The agreement would also demilitarize territory on both sides of the border along a 4:1 ratio in Israel's favor.

Suleiman told the Knesset committee that "accepting the Israeli-Syrian document of understandings that was formulated will allow Syria to assist in the global struggle against terrorism, cut its ties with Hezbollah and assist the American struggle in Iraq." He later predicted that "if the governments of Syria and Israel negotiate they will reach a peace deal in six months."

Suleiman testified that he is in regular contact with the leadership of a committee set up by Syrian President Bashar Assad to coordinate talks with Israel. Suleiman also relayed messages from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

After his meeting in the Knesset, Suleiman expressed pleasure at the invitation he received to come to Israel: "In my wildest dreams I did not dream that I would speak with important decision-makers of the Jewish people. Peace is possible and desirable," said Suleiman. He also said that "since 1948 Israeli leaders said that they are willing to talk about peace at any time and in any place. Syria now announced that it is ready to talk about peace. I challenge the government of Israel to respond to this call." (Ha'aretz, 4/12, 4/13 & 4/15/07; Ynet, 4/15/07)

ISRAEL-SYRIA NEGOTIATIONS, PART II: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not the only leader interested in delivering messages from Jerusalem to Damascus. Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) asked Ibrahim "Abe" Suleiman to take a message to Damascus, saying: "The president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, who announced his intentions for peace at the time, made a historic gesture by coming to visit Jerusalem. If [Syrian President] Assad wants to convince us that his intentions are serious, he must make a gesture such as releasing the bones of [executed Israeli spy] Eli Cohen, expelling Khaled Mashal from Damascus and stopping the transfer of arms shipments to Hezbollah."

Knesset Member Zehava Galon (Meretz) urged negotiations, saying that: "from the statements we heard, it appears that there is someone to talk to. Before we pay an additional price in blood, we need to speak now in the name of the real victims." Celebrated author David Grossman told Suleiman that he supports the back channel negotiations. Noam Yifrach, chairman of Magen David Adom rescue service, asked Suleiman to arrange for him a meeting with his counterparts at the Red Crescent in Syria.

However, Foreign Ministry Director General Aharon Abramovitch reportedly cancelled a planned meeting between Suleiman and Foreign Ministry officials. "There was a wish to avoid giving the misleading impression that official sources were negotiating with Suleiman," explained a senior ministry official.

This cold shoulder prompted Ha'aretz's editorial on Friday to slam Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's failure to engage Syria in negotiations: "If Israel had a proper prime minister, he would not have allowed an individual with ties to the Syrian leadership to visit the Knesset (and Yad Vashem) without inviting him to cross the street to his office so that he could meet with Israeli decision-makers. Parliamentary activity, however energetic and important it may be, cannot serve as an alternative to the continued paralysis of the political leadership. In the situation we find ourselves, when the government rejects Arab hands stretched out in peace, the Knesset cannot make do with deliberations void of political impact. All elected representatives opposed to this will be responsible for the results of such failure." (Ha'aretz, 4/12, 4/13 & 4/15/07; Ma'ariv, 4/13/07)

HEBRON TAKEOVER: On Wednesday, the settlers who seized the building in Hebron were presented with an eviction order that gives them 30 days to vacate the property voluntarily. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz explained that the settlers have a right to appeal the order and therefore could not be evacuated immediately.

It is possible, however, that the settlers won't even have to go to court. Interior Minister Roni Bar-On reportedly proposed that the cabinet strip Defense Minister Amir Peretz of the authority to order the evacuation. A report in Ma'ariv suggested that 12 (out of 25) ministers would back Bar-On's proposal. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not "yet decided" his position, according to officials in his bureau. The prime minister is reportedly "reviewing all the relevant material." David Wilder, spokesperson for the Hebron settlers, predicted that the Olmert government won't evict the squatters: "even though they're not huge fans of the Jewish community of Hebron, they're not willing to pay the price right now."

Attorney Talia Sasson - who was tapped by former prime minister Ariel Sharon to prepare an official report on West Bank outposts - wrote in Ha'aretz that even if the settlers entered into a contract to purchase the contested property, they could not legally populate it without the approval of the defense minister and the head of the Civil Administration. "The approval of the defense minister is not a technical matter," writes Sasson. "The acquisition of real estate in the territories has clear diplomatic and security aspects. [The purchase is] seen by the local population as a provocative act, and this is liable to lead to violent opposition against the residents of the asset, the Jewish community and the settlements, as well as against soldiers deployed in the territories. The asset populated by Israelis requires the Israel Defense Forces to deploy differently in the area, and to reinforce the manpower engaged in protecting the residents...

"Certainly the defense minister and the prime minister should have announced the intention of evicting the settlers at once, as soon as they became aware of the situation, and issued orders for their eviction and held a hearing without delay. The failure to take action immediately and firmly, or at least to make a clear and immediate political decision after the entry into the house, conveyed a clear message to the settlers: The decision regarding the settlement map in the territories, and to a considerable extent the decision on how the IDF will be deployed, is in the hands of those who take the law into their own hands and violate it, rather than in the hands of the Israeli government." (Israel Radio, 4/12/07; Ha'aretz, 4/12 & 4/13/07; Ma'ariv, 4/12/07; Toronto Star, 4/15/07)

SMUGGLING SETTLEMENTS: According to his aides, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends "to order the removal of the illegal outposts built in the West bank in the past few years within a few weeks." Olmert's aides blamed the lack of action on this front on Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, who served as acting justice minister in recent months and "made sure not to touch this hot potato." Olmert met on Tuesday with new Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and reportedly arranged that Friedmann would see to it that the ministerial committee charged with the task would complete the necessary review and make it possible to order the IDF to evacuate illegal outposts.

While politicians toss this "hot potato" around, settlers have found a new way to expand outposts without authorization and in violation of an order issued by the Civil Administration.

Settlers used to bring mobile homes into various West Bank settlements, place them in the field, and connect them to infrastructure. About three months ago, Defense Minister Amir Peretz instructed the IDF to check trucks transporting mobile homes in the West Bank. In several cases when mobile homes were caught being transported without authorization, the trucks were impounded, creating a serious financial disincentive for breaking this law.

Settlers have reportedly found a method that allows them to evade the crackdown: The mobile homes are smuggled into the settlements in pieces small enough to fit in small vans and are assembled on location. To evade Civil Administration supervision, the mobile homes are sometimes assembled at night, thereby creating facts on the ground that force the Civil Administration to engage in a lengthy legal and bureaucratic process before the structures are removed. In 2006, 127 new mobile homes were added to settlement outposts. 37 were removed. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 4/12 & 4/13/07)

MANAGING THE PALESTINIAN HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: A survey of 677 Palestinian households last month found that 87% of those interviewed in Gaza and 81% in the West Bank said that their household income had been reduced following the year long boycott of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Gaza, 53% said that their household income had fallen by more than half, and 21% said their household income had stopped altogether. Households have resorted to borrowing, selling possessions, reducing healthcare and food consumption, and taking children out of school. The survey was commissioned by Oxfam International, a federation of non-government organizations working to fight poverty worldwide, and carried out by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion (PCPO) in mid-March.

PCPO also interviewed 67 senior managers running schools, hospitals and water services across the West Bank and Gaza. Nine out of ten managers said that services had been negatively affected by the boycott. Half of the essential service managers reported that they have cut their vital services by 50% or more because of insufficient funding.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad was in Europe last week to discuss aid to, and expectations of, the Palestinian national unity government. He will be in Washington this week. "We have a very acute financial situation, with about one-quarter of the resources needed to function at a minimum," Fayyad said in Norway. "There is misery everywhere. Poverty is widespread." Fayyad urged that banking restrictions be lifted on the PA so that his ministry could begin managing funds openly, efficiently and transparently. "We are not in the position to manage the funds of the treasury," he said. "When banking restrictions are removed, Palestine will be ready for business."

On Wednesday, Fayyad met with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who promised technical assistance to enable his ministry to receive aid once the PA met certain political conditions. Ferrero-Waldner explained that "possible financial engagement would not mean resuming direct financial assistance overnight." She said that the temporary aid system created to bypass the Hamas-led government would remain for as long as necessary. Ferrero-Waldner also made clear the EU would work with non-Hamas members of government such as PA Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr and Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti.

At a news conference with Fayyad on Thursday, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said that - when conditions permit - his government is ready to resume direct aid to the PA. Stoere said Norway had budgeted $100 million in aid to the Palestinians last year, and was prepared to maintain that level of support. At the same time, Stoere said that Norway expects the Palestinian government to recognize Israel's right to exist, to address security concerns, and to contribute to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and BBC journalist Alan Johnston. (Ha'aretz, 4/12/07; Oxfam, 4/13/07)