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Middle East Peace Report- February 16, 2010

Vol. 11, Issue 18

What Freeze, Syrian-Israeli Talks?, Jerusalem's Tinderbox, Flat Earth Society

February 16, 2010

Believe in Israel, Believe in Peace
What Freeze? Construction is taking place in a quarter of West Bank settlements in violation of the construction moratorium ordered by the Israeli government.
This was the principal finding of a report released by the Israeli Peace Now movement this weekend, which identified 33 settlements where this construction was taking place. Peace Now also reported that construction in some settlements is taking place at night and on the Sabbath, when inspectors are not on duty.
Israel's Defense Ministry is apparently aware of nearly all of these sites. In a written response to a parliamentary inquiry leaked to the press this weekend, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai listed 28 settlements where banned construction was moving forward. He also reported that enforcement efforts have been initiated against those violators, including demolition and stop work orders. Additional enforcement measures are being considered, he wrote.
Following the publication of the Peace Now report, Israeli security forces demolished an illegal structure that had been built in the settlement of Elon Moreh. Settlers defiantly promised that despite the demolition, settlement construction would continue and even double in number.
Responding to these developments, Peace Now Secretary-General Yariv Oppenheimer said that "Minister Begin was correct when he assured the settlers that the building freeze has no real significance." (Ynet, 2/15/10; BBC, 2/15/10; Jerusalem Post, 2/15/10; Israel Army Radio, 2/15/10)
Syrian-Israeli Talks? Just as the Obama administration intensified its efforts to advance peace talks between Israel and Syria, leaders in both countries were exchanging war threats earlier this month, prompting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to instruct his cabinet members not to make any Syria-related statements and making a conciliatory statement of his own.
The exchange flared up when Ehud Barak told the IDF's leadership that "in the absence of an arrangement with Syria, we are liable to enter a belligerent clash with it that could reach the point of an all-out, regional war." He added that "just like the familiar reality in the Middle East, we will immediately sit down [with Syria] after such a war and negotiate on the exact same issues which we have been discussing with them for the last 15 years."
The Syrians, perhaps misinterpreting what was an attempt by Barak to alert Israelis to the necessity of peace with Syria, focused on his talk about war. On Wednesday, Syria's foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said that "Israel knows that if it declares war on Syria, such a war will reach its cities."
The following day, Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, ratcheted up the rhetoric by threatening to topple President Bashar Assad's regime. "Assad should know that if he attacks, he will not only lose the war. Neither he nor his family will remain in power," Lieberman said. "Our message should be that if Assad's father lost a war but remained in power, the son should know that an attack would cost him his regime," he added.
Lieberman's comments, including this rare official reference to regime-change in Damascus, triggered criticism in Israel, and not only from the opposition: Minorities Minister Avishai Braverman of Labor warned that "the damage (Lieberman) caused Israel's image in the international community is not only short-term; it will increase Israel's isolation in the long-term," and noted, "given Israel's sensitive position in the international community, we are in need of diplomacy and a responsible and prudent foreign policy, not a policy that is driven by domestic political considerations."
Ma'ariv reports that Lieberman's sharp reaction may have been motivated by more than populist considerations but may have been an attempt by Lieberman to foil secret contacts taking place between Israel and Syria, through third parties. The report names Italy and Spain as possible mediators, and reveals that Netanyahu sent secret messages through the governments of both countries to Assad indicating his wish to resume negotiations with Syria "without preconditions."
In an interview with Israel TV Channel 2, Lieberman denied the report about secret talks with Syria, depicted the reactions to his statement as "hysterical," and refused to retract it. He said, "I work neither for the media nor for public opinion."
Public opinion may very well be on Lieberman's mind, though. A Haaretz poll published a week ago shows that 53% of Israelis are dissatisfied with Lieberman's performance as foreign minister (compared to 50% last November) and only 34% are satisfied (compared to 38% in November).
At the cabinet meeting held last week, Netanyahu attempted to calm Israeli-Syrian relations by publicly stating that Israel is seeking peace with Syria. Syria's Information Minister, Muhsen Bilal, in an apparent reply to Netanyahu's statement, said that "Syria is striving to obtain real peace," which will lead to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. (Haaretz, 2/1/10; Ynet 2/3 & 2/6/10; Channel 2, 2/5/10; Haaretz, 2/5 & 2/6/10)
Jerusalem's Tinderbox: Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is threatening to demolish hundreds of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem if Israel's legal establishment insists that he act against a settler compound in the Silwan neighborhood of the city.
The structure in question - termed Beit Yehonatan - was built without a permit and in violation of local zoning ordinances in 2004. Two years ago the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the eviction of the settlers and the sealing of the building. No law enforcement action, however, has been taken to date.
Mayor Barkat initially refused to take any action regarding the building. Following repeated calls for him to enforce the law by the city's top legal advisor, by Israel's state prosecutor, and by Israel's attorney general, Barkat adopted a new position earlier this month: His enforcement of the court order on the settlers is contingent on the demolition of 200 Palestinian homes in the area.
The mayor's move is reportedly a tactic to pressure the legal establishment given the political sensitivities of the area. A city hall official told the Jerusalem Post Sunday that Silwan was "the second most incendiary place after the Temple Mount" and that "creative legal thinking" is required to resolve the issue. Along similar lines, a Barkat associate told Ynet that "Barkat is trying to provoke a storm" and that "he hopes to go back to [State Prosecutor Moshe] Lador and say, 'see what you've done?'"
Moreover, the Jerusalem Municipality's legal advisor Attorney Yossi Havilio challenged the mayor's authority to demolish 200 Palestinian homes in the city, since there are not that many homes facing valid court orders. Havillo also dismissed claims that acting against the settler building was discriminatory, given the large number of Palestinian homes in the city which are regularly demolished.
"Failure to implement the orders on Beit Yehonatan is actually discriminatory, ever since these orders were issued, 146 orders were implemented in Jerusalem, some of them in the Silwan area," he wrote to the State Prosecutor's Office.
Responding to the mayor's threat, Jerusalem Councilman Meir Margalit told Ynet that "the mayor is playing with fire."  He added that "this is really raising the stakes in East Jerusalem. It's such a sensitive area, and this move is a slap in the face of efforts by the international community to bring [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table."
Peace Now leader Yariv Oppenheimer also criticized the mayor's irresponsible behavior. "The Jerusalem mayor is acting like the last of the Hilltop Youths and is defending lawbreakers in unconventional ways," he said. "Things are being said and done with the goal of getting back at the Arab population." (Ynet 2/7 & 2/10/10; Haaretz 2/14/10; Jerusalem Post, 2/14/10)
Flat Earth Society: A Knesset caucus against a two-state solution was established earlier this month with strong support from many politicians considered close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"After the disengagement, one could have expected that the talk of creating a Palestinian state would be stricken off and that no one would try to take down [settlements] anymore," Knesset member Arieh Eldad - a co-founder of the caucus and a member of the extremist National Union party - said at the opening session. "Once again, talk of two states is being heard and there's a freeze decree," he added.
His comments were echoed by Likud Minister Benny Begin. "The possibility of creating a foreign, sovereign independent state led by the PLO or Hamas goes against our right over the Land of Israel and our right to live securely," he said.
The lobby was founded by Eldad and by Likud whip Zeev Elkin. The opening session was also attended by Likud ministers Begin and Moshe Kahlon, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, as well as Likud Knesset members Carmel Shama and Tzipi Hotovely. Kadima Knesset members Otniel Schneller and Zeev Bielski also attended.
The only two Likud ministers to not be present or send messages of support to the caucus were Netanyahu and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.
Settler leader Danny Dayan offered the caucus a clear charge: "The lobby's role should be bringing Zionism to the residents of Israel through expansion so a Jewish sovereignty for the entire Land of Israel will grow from there."
These statements stand in stark contrast with comments made by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Herziliya Conference. He said that if Israel fails to reach a peace deal to relinquish control of Palestinian population centers, it "will have to be either a binational or undemocratic [state]."
"If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state," he added. (Ynet, 2/2/10; AP 2/3/10; Haaretz, 2/5/10)