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March 5, 2006 - Vol. 8, Issue 18


NOT YOUR FATHER'S SAUDI INITIATIVE: The Arab League may revisit the peace plan it adopted in 2002 - also known as the Saudi Initiative - at a summit on March 28 and 29. According to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan is drawing up a revision to the initiative - in consultation with the Bush Administration - so as to make it more palatable to Israel. The revision will reportedly propose that Palestinian refugees will be able to return only to the PA territories or to remain in their places of residence and receive monetary compensation.

In advance of the Arab summit, Israeli officials have been addressing the initiative with unprecedented directness, because the Arab diplomats "ought to know which parts [of the plan] are acceptable to Israel and what seems to us like an absolute red line," explained Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni to an Israeli television reporter.

Livni praised the original draft presented by Saudi King Abdullah as "in my view, positive." She added the caveat that "admittedly the initiative spoke of the 1967 lines." Livni's strongest criticism, however, was reserved for an article she says was inserted at the 2002 Beirut summit which demands a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194." Livni views that resolution as calling for the return of the refugees to Israel, and thus contradicting the goal of a two-state solution in which Israel remains a Jewish national homeland. [Many saw the Arab League's 2002 call for an "agreed upon" solution to the refugee problem as a breakthrough, because the Arab League was acknowledging for the first time that any solution must also be acceptable to Israel.] Livni made similar comments in an interview published in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam on Thursday.

In her forthcoming trip to Europe, Livni will promote what she calls "the Israeli peace initiative," which was described by Yedioth Ahronoth as "similar to the Saudi initiative." (Yedioth Ahronoth, 3/2 & 3/4/07; Haaretz, 3/1 & 3/2/07)

NEW QUARTET TACT: As Palestinian politicians make headway toward the establishment of a national unity government, there are growing indications that Quartet members may seek to change their approach to the PA.

On Tuesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia is "striving to have the international community support the peace process. including helping end the blockade against the Palestinian government." No less significant, Lavrov's comments came at the start of talks with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. Lavrov also praised the Mecca agreement, upon which a joint Fatah-Hamas government would be founded. "The Russian leadership from the very beginning supported the idea of forming this kind of government." France similarly said that it would be "disposed to cooperate" with the new government. EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said that the unity government would by judged "by its actions." She also ruled out a resumption of aid to a new PA government at this time. "We have to see the personalities, program and actions [of a new government] and then we will judge if we can gradually re-engage with the Palestinian Authority," she said.

In a related development, the EU is preparing to coordinate its aid program with the new government even if it does not meet the three conditions issued by the Quartet last year. According to a plan drawn up by Ferrero-Waldner, the Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) [established by the Quartet to provide aid to Palestinians without PA involvement] will begin coordinating with the PA in three channels: The first channel will "work on the rule of law, on transparency, on taking responsibility," in Ferrero-Waldner's words. The second channel will focus on institution-building. The third channel would relate to freedom of movement for goods and people. Recently TIM has purchased fuel, financed hospitals, and provided welfare payments in the West Bank and Gaza. The EU plan would not provide significant funds to a Hamas government until it accepts the Quartet's conditions.

It's as if these European diplomats had read a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which concludes that while significant challenges remain, the Mecca agreement provides "the chance of a fresh start." The report also notes that there can be no sustainable diplomacy without a Hamas-Fatah power-sharing arrangement and while the Islamists remain marginalized. Former White House advisor and ICG Middle East Program Director Robert Malley commented that "if the international community is serious about its proclaimed goals, it. will see Mecca as an opportunity to revive the peace process, rather than as yet another excuse to bury it."

Striking a more ominous tone, Jordanian King Abdullah II warned Friday that the regional challenges are "peaking" and that "this requires urgent action at different levels, in order to prevent the deterioration of the situation and loss of the existing opportunity to find a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue." Abdullah noted that the current situation "threatens the entire region. We face two options here: peace - or anarchy, violence, and destruction." Abdullah pleaded for American action, saying that "the United States is capable more than anyone else of influencing Israel. It is time for it to fulfill this role, and to demonstrate to the peoples of the region its transparency and lack of bias towards one side over another." (Ma'ariv, 2/28 & 3/4/07; Ynet, 2/27/07; JTA, 2/28/07; Reuters, 2/27/07; ICG, 2/28/07; Ha'aretz, 3/5/07)

ET TU, BAKER? Speaking at the Library of Congress hours after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the U.S. would join meetings about Iraq that included Iranian and Syrian diplomats, former Secretary of State James Baker called on the Administration to expand Mideast peacemaking to include the Israel-Syria track. He noted that Israel needs peace on this track as well as the Palestinian track, and that Syria might be able to influence Hamas to recognize Israel. Baker also said that Syria must "stop screwing around" in Lebanon and stop transporting weapons to Hezbollah.

In the lecture dedicated to another former Republican Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, Baker outlined a policy he called "pragmatic idealism." Baker said that "we need to recognize and accept that the United States will sometimes have to deal with authoritarian states."

Commenting on reports that the Bush Administration has pressured Israel to not even explore the possibility of peace talks with Syria, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Martin Indyk said that exploring what Syria has in mind "is the duty of an Israeli prime minister. I don't see the harm in testing." In a conference call to American Jewish leaders, Indyk also said that "The United States should not be in the business of telling Israel not to talk to Syria." (AP, 2/28/07; UJC-JCPA, 2/13/07)

WINNERS AND LOSERS: Ha'aretz's Akiva Eldar picked apart the claim - attributed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - that exploratory talks with Syria would be considered a prize to Damascus. "Let's assume for the moment that there is some logic to this approach toward Syria. What about the Palestinian negotiating channel? Is it also remaining blocked in order not to award a prize to Hamas, which is not interested in peace talks with Israel? If the principle behind U.S. Middle East policy is tallying up the winners and losers of every diplomatic move, then we must clarify who will be the happy winner of the prize - negotiations toward a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians - and who will lose the whole kitty. Who will profit from Israel's refusal to renew the negotiations on the Palestinian track and from U.S. support for its prolonged stasis.

"If Syria is the enemy of Middle East peace, then perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be considered a handsome consolation prize for Damascus. And why would Hamas, which is bending over backwards not to recognize Israel's right to exist, want to remove the obstacles to such an arrangement? If the U.S. and its Quartet partners, not to mention the Israeli government, truly want to bypass Hamas on the road to the final- status agreement, then why are they granting it veto power over the peace process?" (Ha'aretz, 2/26/07)

U.S. AID TO ISRAEL REVISITED: Israel and American officials met last week to begin talks on revamping American aid to Israel. A ten year program, which expires this year, has phased-out economic assistance to Israel while increasing military aid by a smaller amount. According to a report in Ha'aretz, Israel is reportedly seeking a deal with the Bush Administration for a new decade-long deal in which Israel would receive an additional $50 million in military assistance annually. A senior State Department official, however, told the Jerusalem Post that "we did not talk about dollar figures. It's way premature." Israel is arguing that the funds are needed in order to address expanded strategic threats. (Ha'aretz, 2/23/07; Jerusalem Post, 3/2/07)

PERETZ ON THE ROPES: A poll published in the morning's Yedioth Ahronoth shows Knesset Member Ami Ayalon as the leading candidate in the race for the Labor Party's top job. 28% of registered party members support him. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is close behind him (26%), followed by incumbent Amir Peretz (19%), Knesset Member Ofir Pines (17%), and Knesset Member Danny Yatom (6%). Only 4% are undecided. The poll was conducted Sunday with a representative sample of 500 registered Labor Party members. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5%. Similar polls published today in Ha'aretz and Ma'ariv show Barak leading Ayalon, but all three polls have Ayalon beating Barak in a one-on-one contest.

103,848 registered Labor Party members are eligible to vote in the May 28th contest. For months the candidates have been engaged in recruitment drives in order to carry the race. Analysts have speculated that Amir Peretz's legendary political machine would keep him in office, and reports on Friday indicated that Peretz had registered significant numbers. However, today's data suggest that "if [Peretz] does not make a deal with one of the contenders - Barak or Ayalon - and quickly, he could find himself sitting at home," according to Yedioth Ahronoth's Sima Kadmon. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 3/5/07; Ha'aretz, 3/5/07; Jerusalem Post, 3/2/07)

DISENGAGEMENT RETURNS: A television interviewer on Saturday asked Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres whether the Olmert government will evacuate even a single settlement. The interviewer noted that Olmert campaigned on the promise to remove many established West Bank settlements in order to define Israel's borders. Peres answered that "the government will evacuate some settlements, though not all of them, by the end of its term." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office, however, was quick to clarify: "We are not familiar with any intention to evacuate any settlements. Illegal settlement outposts-absolutely yes."

Irrespective of the government's intentions, right wing activists are planning to rebuild the West Bank settlement of Homesh, which was destroyed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. An initial group of settlers - set to include former residents of Homesh - is being formed. Organizers are trying to recruit masses of activists to accompany the group to the settlement during Passover, and they are reportedly preparing for a lengthy battle with the government. Boaz Haetzni, one of the organizers said, "a return to Homesh will be a sign that the wheel of concessions and withdrawal has stopped, and now it is turning the other way, a withdrawal [from] the withdrawal." (Ynet, 3/3/07; Israel Channel 2 News, 3/3/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 3/4/07; Hatzofe, 3/1/07)

A LETTER FROM THE AYALON JAIL: Following the murder of Erez Levanon - a settler from Bat Ayin - by Palestinians last Sunday, Israeli security officials feared that other Bat Ayin residents might lash out by attacking Palestinians. The residents of Bat Ayin have a twenty-year history of clashing with Palestinians. Most prominently, three residents were arrested in 2002 for planting a bomb outside a girl's school in East Jerusalem. One of the three, however, is now urging his former neighbors to refrain from acts of vengeance.

Shlomo Dvir - who is serving a fifteen year sentence - wrote a letter to his former neighbors in which he wrote: "There is no private vengeance." He continued, "as these words are being written, our friend the righteous Erez Levanon (may God avenge his blood) has been killed by despicable murderers from a neighboring village. The heart boils with fury and the urge to take vengeance. I ask all the residents and young people not to harm Arabs! Let the security forces catch the murderers and deal with them. A private individual who takes action can harm only himself, his family and the State of Israel and the general process of redemption."

In a conversation with Yedioth Ahronoth reporters, Dvir explains, "I am one of the few who went all the way with vengeance and I am one of the few who knows how it ends. I am afraid that one of the residents will take action and in the end he will have to sit in jail with me. Not one day goes by without my waking up and regretting what I did." (Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/28/07)