NEWS BRIEFS:

Doha dud

The mid-November fourth Middle East-North African Economic Development Conference (MENA) in Doha, Qatar, was a resounding flop. Of 22 possible Arab state participants, only five-- Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar--showed. The conference, touted by the US as a major economic cherry on the top of Mideast peace efforts, was boycotted by Washington's key regional "allies" (and aid recipients), Egypt and Saudi Arabia, despite cajoling efforts by senior US diplomats. The Palestinian Authority also stayed away. Arab governments said their participation would legitimise Israel's position in the region at a time its government was failing to make the type of concessions they demanded to get the stalled Oslo process moving again. But by boycotting MENA, most Arab regimes were passing up crucial opportunities for improving the lots of their people. Trade among Arab nations--just eight per cent of total external trade in 1995--represents the lowest ratio of intraregional trade among any region of the world.

Four years old and already burning flags

In one of scores of pro-Iraq demonstrations by Palestinians in recent months, hundreds of children demonstrated on December 22 near Nablus "in solidarity with the children of Iraq who suffer ... due to the oppressive siege which was put on their country", Al-Ayyam reported the following day. "The children carried banners condemning the American aggression against the Iraqi children, such as 'Palestine's children stand beside Iraqi children against American barbarism'. The children were aged 4-7, and marched in a procession through the village streets and burned Israeli and American flags." Article 36 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child reads: "The child has the right to protection from all forms of exploitation".

Wishful thinking after Islamic summit

The December summit of Islamic states, held in Tehran, had political commentators in a froth as they considered its impact on the "new, moderate" Iran's bid to ditch its pariah status. Much ado was made of the contrasts between the tone of the speech delivered by supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that given by the new president, Mohammed Khatami. There were few surprises from the head cleric, representing the "old guard", as he fumed about the evils of the West. Khatami was at pains to sound more temperate. In a typical reaction, Israel's Yediot Ahronot opined: "Khatami's Islam can be viewed as being open, conciliatory, cultured and civil." (Dec 11). Curious, then, that Khatami in the closing address said he "was delighted that significant resolutions decisively condemn[ed] the policies of the Zionist regime". He was referring to clauses in the "Tehran Declaration", issued at the end of the three-day summit, that blasted Israel for its expansionist policies, state terrorism and the "occupation of Palestinian lands, the blessed Quds [Jerusalem], and other Arab territories". PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, was clearly pleased at the outcome: "All of us, all we Muslims, hold the same stance. I am completely satisfied with the support expressed for our cause." (La Stampa, Turin, Dec 12). As the biggest international event in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the summit was seen was a huge boost for the Iranian government and a rebuff to US efforts to isolate the country for its support of international terror. Indeed, it may result in the opening of a dialogue between Iran and the US--a development viewed with mixed feelings in Israel.

Ties with Turkey bolstered

Israel-Turkey military ties were strengthened considerably during Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai's December visit to Turkey, the first ever by an Israeli defence minister. Even as the Tehran Islamic summit criticised countries signing defence pacts with Israel, Mordechai's visit paved the way for lucrative weapons contracts and promised to enhance the strategic alliance between the two countries. "We are surrounded by regimes with various problems. Israel and Turkey are two islands of stability which must be preserved to-gether," Turkish chief of staff General Ismail Karadayi told Mordechai. He said despite opposition of some nations, Turkey was interested in "deepening" the cooperation. Israel has offered to upgrade Turkish jets and tanks, and to sell Ankara missiles and rifles. Joint naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean are due this month. Several Middle East states-- notably Syria and Iran--have expressed reservations about the ties.

Losses and gains

Early December saw Israel paralysed by the biggest general strike in years, as 700,000 workers protested government economic policies, particularly those relating to pensions and privatisation. For five days, thousands of air passengers were stranded, here and abroad. Water shortages were experienced. Garbage piles grew and fresh produce rotted. Posters appeared calling on workers with right wing sympathies to return to work, claiming the protest was orchestrated by the Labour-affiliated Histadrut trade union body as a government-bashing exercise. The strike eventually ended with a compromise agreement reached between Finance Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman and Histadrut trade union chairman Amir Peretz. "The workers won," beamed Peretz, while Ne'eman argued that "the country" had lost.


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