A collection of the week's news from Israel
A service of the Bet El Twinning Committee of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto
24 Adar 2 5760
March 31, 2000
Issue number 265
Brighter days may be ahead for Golan residents and others opposing a Golan giveaway, if Wednesday's meeting between Golan Residents Committee representatives and Prime Minister Barak is any indication. Committee chairman Eli Malka told Arutz-7 that Barak provided the group with an updated overview of Israel-Syria relations, and indicated that he would soon begin releasing funds for stepped-up development in the Golan. The Golan residents told Barak, "In light of the failed Geneva summit, it is evident that Assad does not want peace with Israel, and that his whole goal is to demean the Prime Minister and the entire Jewish people. We told Barak that the time has come to remove the 'black cloud' of uncertainty hovering over the Golan, and asked him to announce that 'the government tried [to reach peace], was not successful, and that's that. We stressed to Mr. Barak that now is the time to both populate and further develop the Golan." Malka said that Barak listened attentively, and "it was to be understood from his words that in the coming days or weeks, he would begin to remove all of the obstacles relating to the Golan, including the freeing up of frozen lands, development budgets, and the development of the local tourist industry. We left with a better feeling than we had prior to the meeting..." Malka added, however, that the fate of the Golan is still far from certain, and that Barak explained that Bill Clinton is still making last-minute efforts to convince Assad to resume talks. Malka thanked the thousands of pro-Golan activists who hung signs, distributed stickers and organized and attended the massive Golan rally in Rabin Square early this year: "I have no doubt at all that this activism prompted Assad to realize that Barak would not be able to receive approval for such a deal... He was told by his confidante, journalist Patrick Seale, as well as American officials, that Israeli public opinion is against giving up the Golan." (A7 Mar 27,29)
Mr. Netanyahu received an opportunity to argue his case Tuesday - not in a legal forum, but on prime time television. In a nearly hour-long interview with journalist Dan Margalit, Netanyahu attempted to rebuff the charges against him, stating that he was being pursued by an overly-zealous, misguided Israel police department. Netanyahu displayed samples of the gifts he received, and for which he and his wife were interrogated by police for hours at a time. One of them was a six-shekel pin given to Sarah Netanyahu by an official of the Israel Diamond Exchange. Another was a replacement for a meal served them on a trip to China that the couple did not wish to eat - a special mix for coating bananas, presented to them from an apologetic Chinese government official. Netanyahu also spoke of the tremendous grief the drawn-out investigations caused his elderly mother, who passed away two months ago. (A7 Mar 29)
Palestinian para-military police detained a resident of Negohot Tuesday while he was driving along the Negohot road. The PA agents demanded that he too remove an Israeli flag waving from his car. The driver, Oron Shefer, told Arutz-7 "When they stopped me, I refused to remove the flag, and alerted the IDF by radio. An IDF soldier who arrived on the scene actually agreed with the Palestinians that the flag should be removed, but I again refused. I was amazed to see that one of our own officers told me to remove the flag, but I told him that [his order] was illegal, as the agreements say specifically that we are allowed to travel with Israeli flags. He threatened that I would be detained for a long while, but I didn't give in, and of course after two minutes he was forced to allow me to go - without removing the flag." When asked about rumors that the residents of Negohot might leave quietly on their own, Shefer said that these reports do not emanate from Negohot: "Why should we leave here? This is our home, and we have absolutely no reason to leave." Negohot has 13 families, as well as 20 IDF Nachal unit members. (arutzsheva.org Mar 28)
The Shas leadership's response to Rubenstein's decision to investigate Rabbi Yosef was not subtle. Party leader Eli Yeshai, Minister of Labor, said that an investigation against Rabbi Yosef is not indicated, given his subsequent clarifications and rulings that violence should not be used against Yossi Sarid. "Every Jew who prays to G-d and who identifies with the Torah of Israel feels offended today by this wretched decision, and by the fact that freedom of speech is apparently allowed only to parts of this nation, but not to others," Yeshai said. "Woe to the generation that in its time, a Torah giant like Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef is ordered to be investigated by the police. This is a sad day in the annals of Israeli democracy. The State of Israel today, after such a decision, is no longer the same state." Yeshai's party colleague Health Minister Shlomo Benizri said that the decision smacks of "racism." Benizri said that statements against hareidim, such as one by journalist Yehonatan Gefen who called for an intifada against the religious public, were never investigated by the police: "Rubenstein explained at the time that his language was 'only a metaphor.' Could there be a greater user of metaphor than Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef?" he thundered. (arutzsheva.org Mar 27)
Shas does not plan to leave the coalition, despite the decision to order a police investigation against Rabbi Yosef for his remarks against Education Minister Yossi Sarid. (arutzsheva.org Mar 28)
* Palestinian Minister of Agriculture Riyad Al Zaanoun has announced that he refuses to accept an agricultural patrol car from Germany through the Peres Center. "You've given enough to the Jews." A family member of Holocaust survivors promptly walked out of the room upon hearing this. * The Peres Center For Peace had invited strawberry-growing experts from Holland for the Palestinians, who brought along thousands of plants. The Palestinian media reported that the pests in Peres' strawberries infected the local crops.(Ha'aretz Mar 23)
* 100 high school students from Gaza were to spend an evening at a play at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. However, that might have caused the world to think that the Palestinians are pleased with the current situation. At the last minute it turned out that the students had received exit permits from the Arafat’s Palestinian police that were good only between the hours of 5:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. They stayed home.
* A joint Ramallah-Jerusalem medical issues conference has been cancelled.
* A large delegation of Dutch contractors and engineers who came to Gaza to coordinate the construction of the port returned home as soon as it arrived with $80 million that had been allotted to the project. The Dutch, it turns out, are not managing to understand the language of the senior people in the PA. For example, what exactly did the deputy minister mean when he told them about the reliable security company owned by his cousin, which could guard the heavy machinery at the building site?
"I find myself forced to relate to the claims that a decision to investigate will hurt the Israeli social fabric, hurt the chances for peace, etc.”- Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein suggesting that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef can get indicted since it won't effect the peace process ("Completing Decision" Paragraph E Mar 26)
"Let them come here. We will receive them with plenty of refreshments."- Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's response to the upcoming police investigation. (Israel Radio via Jerusalem Post Mar 28)
"Six million? It was a lot less. It's not my fault if Hitler hated the Jews. Anyway, they hate them just about everywhere."- Jerusalem's, PLO appointed, leading Moslem cleric grand mufti Ikrima Sabri speaking to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. (Reuters Mar 25)
"G-d of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.''- From a note placed by the Pope into the Kotel (A/P Mar 26)
"Economic Advisor to Arafat and Palestinian Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Maher el-Kurd stated in Ramallah that 'Israel is attempting to turn the Gaza area into a concentration camp, similar to those of the Second World War'."- News Report, Al-Hayat al Jedida Feb 8 (IMRA Mar 29)
"Even the prison camps of the Nazis were less barbaric than those of the Israelis."- 'Palestine Corner' on Official Syrian 'Radio Damascus' Jan 8 (IMRA Mar 29)
"At the same time that Israel is engaged in organizing international conventions to commemorate the Holocaust, and Zionists are trying to gag the world and prevent it from stating the truth on the subject, Israel is itself pursuing a 'Holocaust policy' against Lebanon. ... I think there is no greater distortion of facts and history than this."- Editorial in the Official Syrian daily Teshreen Feb 21 (IMRA Mar 29)
"Israel - which presents itself as the heirs of the victims of the Holocaust - has committed, and continues to commit crimes which are even more horrible and heinous than those committed by the Nazis."- Editorial in the Official Syrian daily Teshreen Jan 31 (IMRA Mar 29)
"Israel has revealed itself as a entity steeped in racism, hate, and state-sponsored terrorism, which has surpassed even the Nazis in its criminal acts of murder, destruction and devastation, and in its disdain for humanity."- Editorial in the Official Syrian daily Al-Thawra Feb 22 (IMRA Mar 29)
"The Zionists, who claim that they are the victims of Nazism, have been the diligent students of Nazism. From the Nazis they have learned the most brutal methods of tormenting ethnic minorities, and have carried them out against the Palestinian-Arab and the Lebanese-Arab people."- 'Palestine Corner' on Official Syrian 'Radio Damascus' Jan 4 (IMRA Mar 29)
We were all happy to welcome the pope to our country. But I was sorry to see our prime minister - a former chief of General Staff and a native son - standing at the airport saying: "Welcome to the Holy Land."
When I visited the Vatican as foreign minister and invited the pope to visit the State of Israel, the pontiff in his response emphasized that terra sancta - the Holy Land - is primarily terra promisa - the land promised to the Jews. It is "holy" for all. It is "promised" only to the Jews.
This is just one small example of Barak's weakness and rootlessness. This week he issued a dramatic edict: "I call for national reconciliation at this fateful time of historic decisions." You would have thought Mr. Barak suddenly came to his senses and decided to stand up to the pressures put upon him.
I, like many, many others, am in favor of national reconciliation. I, too, am for unity and a broad consensus among the people. But there is a fundamental difference between Barak's call and mine.
Mr. Barak, after already ceding everything to Syria without any real return, after ripping the nation to shreds, is now calling for conciliation to justify and legitimize concessions and surrender.
I, on the other hand, call for national reconciliation and unity, not in joining the Barak-Sarid coalition, but against the pressures and dictates of enemies and friends alike.
Barak misled us. He spoke of a painful compromise, but gave up all. He gave up the irreplaceable Mount Hermon. He gave up the whole Golan Heights and suggested withdrawing to the shore of the Sea of Galilee with the Syrians looking over us. He hastily gave up Hamat Gader, where Israelis supervise the distribution of the Yarmouk waters between Israel and Jordan. An "exchange deal," according to Barak.
Interesting, in the partition map from 1947 Hamat Gader appears as an inseparable part of the Land of Israel. Barak must have erased the map from his memory.
The prime minister gave up the demand to remove the Syrian army from Lebanon, reduce the Syrian army, and establish a demilitarized zone as big as the one in the Sinai. He gave up his demand to remove the terrorist organizations from Syria, and the demand to erase from the Ba'ath Party platform the clause that presents the elimination of Israel as a goal.
In his search for gratitude and fame, Barak reached understandings with the Americans and did not demand they refocus their attention on Iraq's production of weapons of mass destruction. Maybe he just forgot. Or maybe he knew that the Americans could get more out of him than they could Saddam.
The prime minister promised a well-crafted agreement. Just like his patchwork coalition, he managed to weave together solutions to everything.
But how long can you fool the unemployed, whose numbers are swelling, the doctors, nurses, and patients who are tired of waiting for conditions to improve? How long can you mislead the parents who have been hoping for an improvement in the standard of education - the only answer to employment in the coming years?
How deaf can you be to the cries of the handicapped? To what extent can you neglect the border settlements and agriculture? How long will the lower classes remain silent? After all, we all know how that will end: the people will understand and cry that their emperor is only human. The same goes for the peace negotiations. Empty promises. The Americans, who are urging Barak to move forward, know that Assad no longer really exists. According to administration figures, his son Bashar, who is having a hard time getting the support of the army, will probably have to hand the reins of government to people stronger than himself.
Congress probably will not approve financial aid to Syria. The lobby by Barak for Syrian aid will be to no avail; without money, if Assad has the Golan Heights, he will not have to fulfill his promises. The agreement is, after all, skewed and dangerous: Israel is the only one giving anything up, Syria is promising, and Clinton is supposed to sign the check that may not be covered.
How can we stop and build a better agreement? Despite the smoke screen, the prime minister understands he may fail in the referendum. He is afraid, therefore he may be planning early elections under false pretenses. He will use the existing coalition partners to build the false production under the title "Ending 100 Years of Conflict." He will conduct quick elections, and thereby get rid of the nationalistic part of the government.
I appeal to the national element in the Barak-Sarid government: I never tried to stop you from joining the government and I never advised you to leave it. I greatly appreciate the important work you are doing - the construction boom, helping immigration, and fighting social ills. But you must know that we have reached the moment of truth. Barak's antics cannot be stopped. Maybe Assad can be stopped, if he understands that Barak does not have a Knesset majority and that his government is collapsing. Dawn is breaking and we are entering our last hours, but we still have a chance.
You are the only ones who can help create a better agreement. This time, the heavy responsibility for the security of Israel rests upon you. The writer is chairman of the Likud. (Jerusalem Post Mar 26)
Barak came to the prime minister's office with a strategic vision of peace with Syria, which would remove the danger of war, bolster Israel on its main front with the Palestinians and enable the modernization of the IDF with the help of the American taxpayers. In a long nighttime conversation at Camp David in July, he managed to convince Bill Clinton that an Israeli-Syrian agreement would be credited exclusively to him, without any partners, and would be his presidency's heritage and entry ticket to the Nobel Peace Prize.
At one point in December, Barak was convinced that he had an agreement in his pocket when Hafez Assad suddenly renewed the suspended talks in Shepherdstown, sending his foreign minister, Farouk Shara, to represent him. "Everyone knows why a bride enters the bridal canopy," joked the prime minister in briefing sessions, and the supportive press indulged him with headlines such as "Bye-bye Golan," from "highly placed sources," which cushioned public opinion, preparing it for a withdrawal from the Golan. On Sunday, after his failure became apparent, Barak complained about the press reports that represented the situation as if everything was cut and dried with the Syrians. He forgot that the optimistic spin was marked with his own fingerprints and those of his associates.
The Shepherdstown talks in January proved to Barak that the Syrians were the same recalcitrant curmudgeons as in Rabin's time, and his enthusiasm waned. He planned to return to the talks to spark a crisis over Shara's lack of authority, and to demand that Clinton bring Assad to the talks. But the disparity in their political experience worked against him and the Syrian leader surprised him once again by breaking up the talks even before their renewal. Barak refused to give in and took yet another step by making public Rabin's commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines and by making a border offer, which he passed on to the Syrians via Clinton.
Since his election, Barak has said that it is important to him to demonstrate how he left no stone unturned in his quest for peace, so that if he does not succeed, the responsibility for the failure will fall on the Arabs. But that is a very small consolation. Politics shows no mercy for losers who make big promises and fail to follow through. Barak can ask Shimon Peres about that; he warned his successor not to foster high hopes for an embrace with Assad. (Ha'aretz Mar 28)
Ever since Syrian-Israeli negotiations resumed late last year, the conventional wisdom had it that Syria had made a strategic decision to negotiate a peace agreement. A host of sensible reasons emerged in support of this conclusion: President Hafez Assad's deteriorating health, his desire to ease the transition to power for his son, and his desire to regain the Syrian territory lost when he was defense minister.
At the same time, a small group of contrarians - led by Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes - argued that Assad had come to no such conclusion, and was more interested in the peace process than in peace itself. The Geneva summit should shift the weight of the debate decisively in the contrarians' direction, and cause the policies of the United States and Israel to shift accordingly.
In his first public reaction to the breakup of the summit with no announcement of resumed Syrian-Israeli talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak stated yesterday that "the masks have been removed." Barak is right. Now we know that even the most artful and flexible formulations devised by Israel and the United States are not enough for Syria. We know that Israel's swallowing its pride - in terms of eschewing the direct, top-level negotiations between leaders that preceded every Arab-Israeli agreement - was to no avail. We know that Syria, far from understanding that Israelis need to see the prospect of some concrete benefit in exchange for painful territorial concessions, has only slid backwards into the sewer of Holocaust denial and anti-Israel vitriol.
According to the Assad-has-made-a-strategic-choice theory, all this maneuvering was simply the standard tacking associated with a tough negotiating process. Former Syrian-track negotiator Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, for example, interpreted a post-Shepherdstown speech by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara threatening to "restore Palestine in its entirety" as a "an attempt, albeit clumsy, to prepare the groundwork for a settlement with Israel." There comes a point when Occam's razor - the principle that simpler explanations should be preferred until new evidence proves otherwise - should be applied. Following the simplest interpretation of its behavior and interests, Syria is attempting to breath just enough life into the peace process to keep itself off the list of pariah states, but not so much life that a peace agreement must actually be concluded. The wisdom of this strategy was amply demonstrated by the Geneva summit itself. What other leader of a nation on the State Department's infamous "state-supported terrorism" list warrants a special detour by the president of the United States for a private meeting? In terms of human rights, the totalitarian nature of the regime, its support for terrorism, and even aggression against and occupation of neighboring countries, the parallels between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Hafez Assad's Syria are compelling. Yet while Saddam is still attempting to wriggle out from under an unprecedentedly harsh sanctions regime almost a decade after having been ousted from Kuwait, Assad can subjugate Lebanon and wage a proxy war against Israel almost with impunity.
For Assad, a reasonable cost-benefit analysis seems to weigh heavily against concluding a peace agreement with Israel (as opposed to talking about one). Peace could jeopardize Syria's grip on Lebanon, a much more substantial and lucrative territory than the Golan Heights. Peace would inevitably kindle some process of modernization - with all its economic benefits and political risks. Finally, peace would deprive the minority Alawite regime of a great unifying force within heterogeneous Syrian society - enmity of Israel.
The choice between alternative theories of Syrian behavior is not just an academic exercise, but has far-reaching policy implications. If Syria has made the alleged strategic choice for peace, then all that is left is to go through the painstaking and nerve-wracking process of negotiations. If, however, a more reasonable hypothesis is that Syria is happiest dangling the prospect of peace without ever concluding a treaty, than a different set of policies is required.
For the United States, the realization that Syria is not serious about, and may in fact be avoiding peace, should dictate treating Damascus more in line with its actual behavior than with unsubstantiated expectations of future improvements. This means insisting that Syria is not exempt from international law, and can no longer treat Lebanon as an object for plunder and a launching pad for attacks against Israel, regardless of Israel's presence on the Golan Heights.
Israel, for its part, should move up the self-imposed deadline for withdrawal from Lebanon from July. This, coupled with a diplomatic effort to enlist the United Nations to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal through implementation of Security Council Resolution 425, is an appropriate response to the unmasking of Syrian intransigence in Geneva. (Jerusalem Post Mar 28)
The apparent failure yesterday of President Clinton's latest effort to come to closure with Syria's dictator, Hafez Assad, on the terms for restarting -- if not for concluding -- direct Israeli-Syrian negotiations amounts to a stay of execution, not a commutation of sentence. It is predictable that Assad, as cunning as he is ruthless, appreciates that his negotiating position is likely to improve as the clock runs out on Mr. Clinton's presidency. The decrepit Syrian may ultimately pass on a deal with his abiding enemy, Israel, but if he actually wants one he will wait until it has been sweetened considerably.
That being the case, no one should be under any illusion: There is no time for further deferring serious thought and debate about the price that will ultimately have to be paid by the United States, to say nothing of Israel, for Mr. Clinton's Middle East legacy. An important contribution toward that debate has recently been made by an impressive array of national security experts who have issued the attached memorandum to the Congress under the sponsorship of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).Particularly noteworthy is the warning offered by these experts against one particularly insidious form of bakshish President Clinton seems prepared to offer Assad: materiel assistance for Syria's armed forces. "It appears that Syria is seeking a qualitative improvement in its military forces for purposes that are unlikely to advance Western interests in general, or American interests in particular. As American military professionals, we strongly oppose the rehabilitation of Syrian military capabilities -- whether directly or through the provision of economic assistance that permits the Syrian government to spend its own limited resources on military equipment."
If a report in the 27 March edition of the Sunday Times of London is accurate, there may be even greater danger associated with Mr. Clinton's efforts to lubricate Israel's surrender of the Golan Heights. According to an article headlined "Israeli Plan for Golan Nuclear Shield," the paper says the Barak government plans to place neutron land mines -- reduced-blast nuclear devices designed to kill with intense radiation -- as a means of protecting Israel from attack once Syria can again use the Heights as an invasion route. [Israeli] military sources say that although the Israeli government will not acknowledge it -- Israel does not admit it is a nuclear power -- portable, low-yield neutron bombs have been perfected over the past two decades at a factory in the west of the country....Israel, fearing a repeat of Syria's invasion in 1973, has demanded that any deal include the withdrawal of all of Assad's tank units north to the Damascus basin, but military strategists concede that even if that were implemented, a Syrian rapid invasion force could be at the new Israeli border within 12 hours....[Israel's neutron weapons] apparently [have] a yield of 250 tonnes and could subject anyone within a radius of several hundred yards to a potentially lethal dose of radiation while leaving military vehicles beyond the point of impact largely intact.
Israel may well feel it needs nuclear landmines to provide a deterrent to renewed Syrian aggression once the strategic depth afforded by the Golan Heights is lost. It says volumes about the folly of a so-called "peace process" that would replace a secure and peaceable border with one that could precipitate a nuclear conflagration -- and the inadvisability of continued American pressure to bring it about. (Center for Security Policy Mar 27)