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April 23, 2007 - Vol. 8, Issue 24

RETURN OF THE MULTILATERALS; BILATERAL PROGRESS?; BENCHMARKS & RIFLES; MISSED OPPORTUNITIES;

RETURN OF THE MULTILATERALS: Last week, the Arab League appointed, for the first time, a committee to "market" its peace initiative to Israel. King Abdullah of Jordan, which is a part of the committee, last week hosted an Israeli parliamentary delegation, headed by Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. King Abdullah urged the Israelis to adopt the Arab League's plan as a basis for regional negotiations. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert followed up by inviting King Abdullah to visit Israel and discuss the Arab League's plan.

In a statement that went almost unnoticed, Olmert expressed his willingness to accept the plan as a basis for negotiations. "I'm ready to accept the Saudi initiative as a basis for discussions with the Palestinians, together with the Saudis," Olmert told the Australian Broadcasting Service. He added: "we have to try to play along those lines in a genuine manner with the Arab countries and with the Saudis in order to strengthen the moderate forces amongst them." Asked about the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, Olmert said: "We think, we believe, we never said differently that the refugee problem must be resolved. And it must be resolved with a complete awareness to the suffering that the Palestinians went through over generations. We are not playing games here. This is serious."

Olmert's seriousness is, however, questioned by some Israeli pundits. Celebrated columnist Nahum Barnea observed: "Olmert can talk about the Saudi initiative because there is no Saudi initiative. He knows that at most, the initiative is a marketing tool, a wrapping. Insofar as Israel's interest goes, it is better to hold separate negotiations. The greater the number of participants, the greater the demands. The most extreme side dominates. But since there are no negotiations at the moment, one can fantasize about the Saudi initiative, one can invite delegations of foreign ministers and one can pretend that negotiations are just around the corner." (Australian Broadcasting Service, 4/17/07; Ha'aretz, 4/16 & 4/20/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 4/20/07)

BILATERAL PROGRESS? "Something is moving in the diplomatic process," observed Ha'aretz's senior diplomatic correspondents Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner following some signs of life in the dilapidated political process.

Some progress was reportedly achieved in the April 15 meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Following the meeting, Palestinian factions reportedly agreed to suspend launching Qassam rockets from Gaza, and a significant reduction in Qassam launches during the past week was indeed noted. Olmert is said to have agreed to open "political horizon" talks on the security and economic arrangements for future Israeli-Palestinian relations. Olmert also reportedly expressed his support for an American plan to train and arm Abbas' Presidential Guard. Some progress seems to have been achieved, as well, in the negotiations that Israel and Hamas are holding, through Egypt, on the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Olmert also reportedly ordered the opening of the Karni crossing point - Gaza's economic lifeline - in an expanded "double shift" format to eliminate backlogs. The Palestinian director general of security at the crossing, Salim abu-Safiyah, confirmed to the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam that the crossing's opening hours were extended, but noted that the increase in traffic amounts to only 4% because no additional terminals at the crossing were activated.

In their weekly diplomatic column, Ha'aretz's Benn and Rosner observed that while some say that Olmert's agreement to discuss a "political horizon" with Abbas is the beginning of a path that would eventually lead the Israeli prime minister to negotiate final status issues with the Palestinians, others see it as a means to reduce American pressure. "Olmert, considering his shaky position in the public-opinion polls, does not have public backing for a dramatic diplomatic move, and if he attempts one, he will risk the breakup of the coalition," Benn and Rosner wrote. "Olmert is only trying to placate American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the lowest price possible." (Ha'aretz, 4/20/07; Al-Ayyam 4/17/07)

BENCHMARKS & RIFLES: These developments coincide with a report of a new set of U.S.-determined benchmarks for monitoring Israeli and Palestinian steps to improve the situation. The document - reportedly still in development, and the result of consultation between U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones, U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem Jacob Walles, and General Keith Dayton, the American security coordinator in the territories - reportedly tracks Israeli actions on issues relating to Palestinian freedom of movement and Palestinian actions regarding security reform.

Reports also surfaced regarding a new Dayton Plan for Palestinian security reform. The plan reportedly includes the formation of a new office headed by Mohammed Dahlan, national security advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas. This new entity would lead security reforms with American assistance and coordinate the work of all other security forces loyal to Abbas. The plan also would beef up the Abbas-loyal Presidential Guard and deploy its personnel around various strategic facilities in the Palestinian Authority.

Egypt and Jordan have already agreed to train the Presidential Guard, while Persian Gulf countries have agreed to provide funding to help implement the plan. The U.S. will provide assistance consisting of $59 million worth of supplies, including non-lethal weapons. However, Israel is expected to facilitate the transfer of firearms to the Presidential Guard. Egypt has reportedly already provided one shipment of rifles.

Knesset Member Yossi Beilin (Meretz) warns against Israel's role in arming Abbas-loyal forces, saying: "Ehud Olmert, you are making a terrible mistake by lending a hand to a step in which you are leading an arms race between Fatah and Hamas. In this race, Fatah will not win. The side that will pay the price is us." Beilin argues that "arming one element in the PA due to the intention to see Fatah twist Hamas' arm soon could end up as a terrible boomerang. it would constitute an incentive for Hamas to arm itself even more, and if clashes between the two sides break out it would not be much of a gamble to assume Hamas would emerge victorious." On the other hand, writes Beilin, "If Abbas succeeds in [negotiations with Israel] and is able to submit a draft agreement with Israel to a Palestinian referendum he would be stronger than all his opponents. If all he can bring to his people is regular bi-weekly meetings with Olmert to discuss the Karni Crossing's hours of operation, Abbas would lose even more authority and pay a heavy political price."

Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist for Ha'aretz, echoes Beilin's concerns yet places responsibility for this plan with the Bush Administration: "Arming the Palestinian Presidential Guard is part of Elliott Abrams' plan to bury the Mecca agreement, the basis of the national unity government. Abrams, deputy national security adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush and an acknowledged expert in the language of force, related in a closed-doors briefing that non-Hamas cabinet ministers would resign and that Abbas would dissolve the government and announce new elections." Eldar does not pull any punches by concluding that "the neo-conservatives have not learned that in the Middle East, a problematic regime's removal can lead to the emergence of an infinitely more problematic one." (Ha'aretz, 4/16, 4/17, & 4/20/07; Israel Radio, 4/18/07; Ynet, 4/17/07)

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Alongside fears that an Israel-Syria war might break out in the near future and following the visit of Syrian-American unofficial negotiator Ibrahim Suleiman, retired IDF General Shlomo Gazit laments that "Ehud Olmert, our prime minister, did not see fit to 'waste' an hour or two and listen to what he had to say. This was a mistake and a missed opportunity. It was a mistake due to the negative message conveyed by this failure. Israel, which does not pass up an opportunity to declare that 'its hand is extended in peace,' demonstrated that at least in this case, it did not even bother to extend its pinkie in peace. And it was a missed opportunity, because not only could matters have been clarified, but Professor Suleiman could also have been used to convey a positive message to Damascus."

Why might Olmert be avoiding the Syrian track? "Because we cannot go against American policy and hold negotiations with the Syrians." explains Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres in a frank interview with Yedioth Ahronoth. Ha'aretz's Zeev Schiff writes that during Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Israel last week the American message to Israel "remained unchanged: Israel should at present avoid diplomatic talks with Damascus because President Bashar Assad plans on using such talks to extricate Syria from its isolation." (Ha'aretz, 4/23/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 4/20/07; Ma'ariv, 4/17/07)

CRACKING DOWN BEYOND THE GREEN LINE? When the Samaria Regional Council recently sought to build a memorial to fourteen fallen soldiers, the Defense Ministry refused to cooperate, responding that "the laws of the State of Israel, including the national parks law, do not apply to the areas of Judea and Samaria. There is no counterpart to Judea and Samaria in the law and, therefore, we will not be able to recognize a memorial site in Judea and Samaria." Samaria Regional Council spokesperson Ahuva Shilo termed the Defense Ministry's insistence on following the law as "excuses" adding that "whoever passed that law can also change it."

Settlers, after all, have gotten used to favorable treatment from law enforcement: Statistics compiled by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz show that over the past ten years the scale of illegal building among Palestinian in the West Bank is double that of the settlers, while the number of demolitions of structures built by Palestinians is 10 times greater: 1,519 versus 150. An examination of Civil Administration data for 2006 alone notes an up-tick in law enforcement vis-à-vis the settlers: 301 illegal construction incidents and 147 demolitions. That is, 150 building demolitions were applied to settlers in the past decade; all but three of them took place last year.

Of course, any step-up in law enforcement has not stopped the settlers from continuing to establish facts on the ground. Ha'aretz reported last week that the company which facilitated the controversial "purchase" of property in Hebron last month is suspected by police of forgery and fraud, including cases involving the takeover of other homes in Hebron. Regarding a document which was used to attest to the "purchase" of a Hebron home in 2005, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter wrote that the police "collected statements and seized evidence in the form of documents that have been examined by police. Forensics tests revealed that some of the documents had been forged." The settlers are still occupying the house they took claim to with the aid of these allegedly forged documents. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 4/22/07; Ha'aretz, 4/17/07)