NEWS BRIEFS:

"War" Over Orient House

After weeks of "provocations" at east Jerusalem's Orient House, culminating with a briefing for foreign diplomats on Israel's Independence Day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's security cabinet decided to issue closure orders for three Palestinian Authority offices operating in the building. The offices included National Institutions, an office investigating settlement activity, and the Office of National Research run by PLO Jerusalem official Faisal Husseini. Netanyahu's office said official PA activity in Jerusalem violates the 1994 Oslo Accords. Husseini warned the government decision to interfere at Orient House was "pushing the Palestinian people to war." The dispute persisted after US Ambassador to Israel Edward Walker failed to achieve a compromise between the sides, but then a High Court injunction postponed the matter until after the May 17 elections.

Russo-Israeli Talks: Round Three

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made a two-day stopover in Israel, the third round of top-level Russian-Israeli meetings in a month. Israel reiterated concerns that transfers of non-conventional weapons and missile technology to Iran pose a serious threat to regional stability. The stepped-up contacts between the two countries come at a time when Russia has criticized NATO attacks in Kosovo, leaving some US officials uneasy. Ivanov was careful to also meet with election rivals Yitzhak Mordechai of the Center party and Labor's Ehud Barak, to counter earlier charges Moscow was politicking for Netanyahu.

American Rumblings

Disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem surfaced anew, as the Clinton administration accused Binyamin Netanyahu of breaking private assurances at Wye River that settlement expansion would be halted. Netanyahu's office responded he never agreed to freeze natural growth in existing communities, which would continue. In a letter to Yasser Arafat, President Clinton reportedly criticized sharply the "devastating effect" Israel's settlement policy has on the peace process.

Meanwhile, the White House and Congress are headed for a showdown over legislation requiring a move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Under a 1995 law, President Clinton must either move the embassy to Jerusalem by the end of May or exercise a waiver on "national security" grounds. Otherwise, the State Department faces a fence on 50% of its foreign missions' maintenance budget. The Administration argues moving the embassy now prejudges the final-status issue of Jerusalem at a sensitive time in the peace process. The measure enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress, which views the embassy move as long overdue and a matter of fairness to a close US ally.

No Sign of PA Changes

* Amnesty International reports the PA has held hundreds of political detainees for lengthy spells without trial in security detention centers, where they were tortured and denied access to families and lawyers.

* Palestinian police shot and wounded an Israeli soldier who made a wrong turn into a PA-controlled village. Villagers stoned his jeep and PA police shot him in the stomach, chest and shoulder while he was fleeing.

* Three Hamas activists involved in 1996 suicide bombings, which killed 58 Israelis, were released from a Gaza prison on orders of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. The 3 were later "re-arrested". Netanyahu advisor David Bar-Illan said the releases indicated "the option of reactivating terrorism is being kept open."

* An April poll by the Nablus-based Palestinian Center for Research & Studies found:

- 45% of Palestinians support armed attacks against Israelis.

- 56% of Palestinians believe they cannot criticize the PA without fear.

- 71% believe that corruption exists in PA institutions.

- Only 26% have a positive evaluation of "Palestinian democracy".

Jordan and Syria Get Re-acquainted

Jordan's King Abdullah made a two-day trip to Damascus after which he voiced support for Syria's position in talks with Israel. Declaring the visit a new chapter in Jordanian-Syrian relations, he also pledged that renewed relations with Syria would not hurt the Hashemite kingdom's ties with Israel. Meanwhile, intelligence reports say Syria has constructed a vast network of tunnels throughout the country to conceal up to 1000 Scud-C ballistic missiles capable of delivering non-conventional warheads to most of Israel. The tunnels can withstand conventional bombing.

Hizb'Allah Tests Israel

Hizb'Allah attacks in south Lebanon escalated in recent weeks, as the radical Islamic militia tested whether Israel would retaliate so close to elections. A bomb ambush killed Staff-Sgt. Molo Negato on May 3rd and mortar volleys wounded 3 IDF soldiers at a Beaufort castle outpost. Another barrage hit the Galilee town of Shlomi, wounding one and damaging property. The Christian enclave of Jezzine was also targeted, as a roadside bomb seriously wounded Lt. Col. Josef Karameh, SLA commander in Jezzine. Two weeks later, another such bomb killed his acting replacement, SLA officer Munah Tuma. Over 150 camouflaged, remote-control bombs have recently been discovered and detonated.

SOURCES: The Jerusalem Post, Middle East Newsline, Ha'Aretz, Arutz 7, Middle East Dispatch, The Jerusalem Report, Prime Minister's Report


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