NEWS BRIEFS

China, Iran and Libya

China is collaborating with Iran and Libya on missile technology, according to US intelligence reports cited by US and British media in mid-June. The first report, in the Washington Times (June 16), came just a week before President Bill Clinton's trip to China. If confirmed, the paper said, the intelligence assessments "would indicate Beijing is violating pledges and agreements not to ship missiles to the Middle East … after the United States imposed sanctions on China for selling missile components to Pakistan, Beijing agreed in 1994 to halt the sales in exchange for lifting the penalties." US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in response to the reports that the US had "repeatedly made clear to China at senior levels our concerns about reports of Chinese exports of missile-related equipment and technology to Tehran and we will continue to do so". Israeli officials regard Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear capability and the missile systems required to carry nuclear warheads as a major concern. The London Times also reported that Chinese experts were said to have been working with Libyan technicians to help to create missiles for Libya's Muammar Gaddafi (June 17).

Hizb'Allah loses ground

In the final round of Lebanon's local elections last month, the radical Hizb'Allah lost to an alliance of pro-Syrian political factions in its stronghold of Baalbek, in the Beka'a Valley. Hizb'Allah is competing with its rival Syrian-backed Amal movement for leadership of Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslims, the country's largest and poorest sect. Armed by Iran, Hizb'Allah has Syria's nod to operate in a country largely occupied by Syrian troops. More than 60 per cent of eligible voters turned out in the country's first local elections in 35 years.

Likud, Labour MKs want to scrap direct election of PM

The debate in Israel over the law providing for direct election of the prime minister moved into high gear in the last month. With support from members across party lines—and opposition from both PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Labour leader Ehud Barak—a bill calling for cancellation of the "Direct Election of Prime Ministers Law" is being considered. The law, first implemented in the 1996 election, saw voters cast one ballot for prime minister, another for a Knesset party. Aimed at limiting the power of smaller parties by installing a hard-to-unseat prime minister, the law has backfired, say its critics. It has destroyed the system of two major parties, Labour and Likud, while strengthening minor parties who increasingly hold the government to ransom for narrow political, religious or ethnic gain. Among those opposing the law are some who favour a return to the pre-1996 system, which saw voters cast one ballot for a party, with the party leader who is able to put together a majority coalition becoming prime minister. Others suggest an amendment to the direct-election system: either by having the leader of the party with the largest number of votes automatically become prime minister (without having to cobble together an often fractious coalition); or by having a large proportion of Knesset seats represent regional constituencies. Both suggested changes would strengthen the two major parties.

Palestinian political shifts underway?

In a move that may undercut relatively moderate Palestinian activists who emerged inside the disputed territories while the PLO leadership was abroad, Yasser Arafat has persuaded two senior hard-liners to return to the self-rule areas from Tunis, the PLO's last base in exile. The two are Farouk Kaddoumi and Mahmoud Ghnaim, both harsh critics of the Oslo accords. Their arrival, and planned formation with Arafat of a new collective leadership committee, will serve to reduce the influence of the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, which has of late become increasingly outspoken about Arafat's dictatorial leadership style and PA corruption. The London-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi has quoted PLO sources as saying the formation of a new leadership body has become a preoccupation for Arafat, who has asked Kaddoumi and Ghnaim to help him resolve the "question of organisational succession". Many observers have hoped the ailing Arafat would be succeeded by his "second-in-command", Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), considered a pragmatist. The return of the Tunis hard-liners could see a less desirable outcome to Arafat's eventual departure.

What's your poison?

Syria is preparing to produce deadly VX nerve agent, according to an early July report in Jane's Defence, based on Israeli intelligence. Syria was already capable of producing other chemical agents. VX is the deadly substance traces of which were recently found in Iraqi missile warheads from the 1991 Gulf War. European experts are now examining the samples, following Iraqi denials that it ever used VX in weapons. "Israel has long been concerned that Syria might put VX or other chemical agents in missiles capable of hitting the Jewish state," The Associated Press reported.
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